Republic of Ireland 1 Azerbaijan 1
'Here lies Shane Duffy, Headerer of Important Goals' will be engraved on the Derry giant's headstone when he eventually 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 be unable to offer Stephen Kenny a new contract after home defeats to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.
Win or bust against Serbia on Tuesday.
An emotional rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann swooshed Seámus Coleman’s Ireland into this dead rubber full of intent and promise. Qualifying for the Qatar World Cup may be a lost cause but a newly-oiled bandwagon after Portugal carried players and a crowd of 21,287 for 15 minutes where some real chances were created.
Unfortunately they fell to Coleman and fellow right back Matt Doherty.
As that initial gusto faded, 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 agonisingly yet stirring loss on the Algarve.
Azerbaijan's vaunted defensive organisation was initially absent as Josh Cullen, who started the brightest of any Irish player, dropped a ball onto Doherty's head but the header was weak and off target.
Adam Idah took the battle to the opposition when skinning Hojjat Haghverdi after just five minutes with a sign of pure centre forward's pace and muscle. Idah squared for Aaron Connolly whose snap shot was dramatically blocked by the visiting captain Maksim Medvedev.
Next, Coleman burst into the box, and when forced onto his left foot, the skipper leaned back and ballooned his shot well wide.
Eight minutes clocked and what could have been 3-0 was nothing at all.
Gavin Bazunu had clearly learned from his early errors against Portugal but twice he was called into action by Namik Alakarov being allowed 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 a reason that the 21-yea- old cannot get into the Brighton team. For all that energy in possession and Kenny stating this week that he is only operating at 70 per cent of the player he can become, he either lacks the 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 that he fielded at Estádio Algarve but there were too many attack minded players on view, 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, the 19-year-old Parrott had no place to turn. He too would be withdrawn.
And then it happened. Another disaster for Kenny as his team allowed Azerbaijan to grow into the game and most unforgivable of all, Emin Makhmudov was invited 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 was turned back on when Horgan whipped a cross onto Jayson Molumby’s head seconds into the second-half. 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. The lack of quality at Kenny’s disposal is blatant.
“I have to be more clinical in the final third,” said man of the match 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 the rustiness of a midfielder without any minutes to save him. And to save Ireland from another deeply embarrassing failure.
Again, they tried their hearts out. James McClean ran headlessly, Coleman bust a gut, Duffy punched the turf in frustration, as all the while Gianni de Biasi’s defensive structures held firm.
The misery seemed complete when Rustam Akmedzade burned away from Hourihane and Duffy only for Bazunu’s leg to deny a killer second.
Seconds after Duffy levelled matters with four minutes remaining - a goal that VAR could have disallowed as McClean let the ball roll out of play in the build-up - an offside Robinson drew a brilliant save from Shakhrudin Mahammadaliyev.
And so came the undeniable truth; two nations playing at the same standard and sharing a point.
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)