Republic of Ireland 1 Azerbaijan 1
‘Here lies Shane Duffy, headerer of important goals’ could be engraved on the Derry giant’s tombstone whenever he drifts into the afterlife.
The 29-year-old’s renaissance for club and country was confirmed with a late equaliser that buys his manager a stay of execution. The FAI - in any era - would struggle to offer Stephen Kenny a new contract following home defeats to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.
Win or bust against Serbia tomorrow night is probably too much to expect. A draw would be a result.
An emotional rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann flung Seámus Coleman’s Ireland into this dead rubber full of intent but they faded alarmingly faded around the 15-minute mark.
Qualification for the Qatar World Cup may be a lost cause but a newly-oiled bandwagon, buoyed by heroics in Portugal, carried a crowd of 21,287 until three early chances were miscued.
Unfortunately, the clearest sight of goal fell to Coleman and fellow right back Matt Doherty.
These early moments came back to haunt a nation without a competitive victory since the 2-0 win over Gibraltar in June 2019. It’s been downhill ever since. Until, that is, last Wednesday’s stirring loss on the Algarve.
Azerbaijan's defensive solidity was initially absent when Josh Cullen dropped a nice ball onto Doherty's head, only for a weak connection to miss the target. Adam Idah took the battle to the opposition when skinning Hojjat Haghverdi after just five minutes with a show of pace and muscle. Idah squared for Aaron Connolly whose snap shot was blocked by the visiting captain Maksim Medvedev.
Next, Coleman burst into the box, and forced onto his left foot, the skipper leaned back and ballooned another effort well wide.
Eight minutes clocked and what could have been 3-0 was nothing at all.
Gavin Bazunu quickly learned from his passing errors against Portugal and twice he was called into action by Namik Alakarov being allowed to cut in from the left wing.
That it was Connolly who was presented with most of the half chances in a stagnant contest suited the Azerbaijanis just fine. He was asking questions down the left and one cross belted off Idah’s head for another near-miss but there is good reason why this 21-year- old sits on the Brighton bench. For all that energy in possession and Kenny stating this week that he is operating at 70 per cent of the player he can become, Connolly either lacks the necessary composure to make it as an international striker or his confidence is drained by a lack of goals.
Kenny replaced him with Daryl Horgan at half-time.
The manager was rightly praised for the starting XI at Estádio Algarve but there were too many attack minded players on view here, with Troy Parrott anonymous in an undefined role behind Idah, except when they bumped into each other. With James McClean and Connolly monopolising the left flank, while Doherty and Coleman raided the right, Parrott had no place to turn. He too would be withdrawn early.
And then it happened. Another disaster for Kenny as Emin Makhmudov was encouraged to unleash a stinger from the edge of the box that beat an outstretched Bazunu. Cullen and Coleman were both guilty of not shutting down the space.
The ground went mute. The sound flicked back on when Horgan whipped a cross onto Jayson Molumby’s head seconds into the second-half but sticking to a depressing script, the midfielder nodded over the crossbar.
An all too familiar scene was unfolding. Ireland huffed and puffed but struggled to score against a side ranked 112 in the world.
“I have to be more clinical in the final third,” said Idah, “I am gutted I haven’t scored for the senior team yet.”
When Idah missed the target with another header from another Horgan curler into the box, Stephen Kenny stood on the sideline, black suit jacket discarded, with a glassy eyed look of the gambler on his last $100 pleading for snake eyes.
Kenny rolled the dice, asking Callum Robinson to shake off the virus and Conor Hourihane to shake off rustiness to save Ireland from another deeply embarrassing loss.
Again, every player tried his heart out. James McClean ran headlessly, Coleman bust a gut, Duffy punched the turf in frustration as all the while Gianni de Biasi’s defensive structure held firm.
The nightmare seemed very real when Rustam Akmedzade burned away from Hourihane and Duffy only for Bazunu’s leg to deny a killer second goal.
Seconds after Duffy levelled matters with four minutes remaining - a goal that VAR might have disallowed as McClean appeared to let the ball roll out of play in the build up - an offside Robinson drew a brilliant save from Shakhrudin Mahammadaliyev.
Unlike Ronaldo in Portugal, the dramatic winner never happened as two nations playing at a similar standard shared the points.
Republic of Ireland: Bazunu; Coleman, Duffy, Egan, Doherty (James Collins 80), Molumby (Hourihane 63), Cullen (Browne 88), McClean; Parrott (Robinson 63), Connolly (Horgan 46), Idah.
Azerbaijan: Mahammadaliyev; Medvedev (Huseynov 70), Badalov, Haghverdi, Krivotsyuk, Mahmudov; Garayev, Tural Bayramov (Salahli 70), Alasgarov (Akhmedzade 71), Emreli (Sheydayev 79), Ozobic (Nuriyev 80).
Referee: Jerome Dominique (France).