Northern Ireland’s path to a World Cup qualification play-off place became clearer on Saturday as Stuart Dallas’ strike at the death earned them a 1-0 win in Azerbaijan.
Michael O’Neill’s side would have been content with a share of the spoils on a tough night in Baku but satisfaction turned into jubilation when Dallas fired in his first competitive goal for his country in stoppage time.
Here Press Association Sport looks at what was discovered from the Northern Irish’s visit to the Land of Fire:
1. Second spot could be seized in September now
A good result became a great one when the Czech Republic only drew with Norway later in the evening, ensuring second-placed Northern Ireland now own a four-point cushion in Group C with four to play. That advantage will be expected to be increased during the next round of fixtures as O’Neill’s outfit travel to the microstate of San Marino while the Czechs face World champions Germany.
Should the lead increase to seven points, Northern Ireland will then entertain the Czechs knowing a draw would be enough to ensure they cannot overhaul them, which could confirm second place depending on how the Azeris, now six back, fare in their two contests.
2. Spirit shows through once again
When the full-time whistle sounded at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, most onlookers were wondering how on earth did they win that?
O’Neill’s team, so polished in dispatching Norway back in March, were not at the races. In their defence, they were missing eight players they had in France at the Euros last summer and lost Gareth McAuley midway through the first half, while the timing of this fixture, at the end of the season and in great heat, was another contributing factor.
Nevertheless, they found a way to win, hanging on in the contest long enough and taking the only clear opportunity that presented itself throughout the 90 minutes.
3. O’Neill has a dependable defence
A fifth clean sheet out of six in these qualifiers ensured at least a point was certain in Baku. Only the Germans have scored against this Northern Irish team and not even a first-half injury to McAuley, which forced a reshuffle in their system, flummoxed them.
Azerbaijan did create two big openings - one through Ramil Sheydayev when McAuley was injured, and the other from an offside Afran Ismayilov - but on both occasions the ball sailed over goalkeeper Michael McGovern’s crossbar. Credit must go to 37-year-old Aaron Hughes in his 106th appearance for the country, and to Fleetwood full-back Conor McLaughlin, who once again showed he should be playing at a level higher than League One.
4. Possession isn’t everything against the Northern Irish
In the build-up to this clash many of the Northern Irish camp had pointed out that despite beating the Azeris 4-0 in Belfast in November, they had actually seen less of the ball than their visitors. It was a similar story some 2,700 miles east as Robert Prosinecki’s team enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, at one point in the first half hogging 70 per cent of it.
But the back-and-forth between the Azerbaijani defenders caused few issues to the visitors and the 335 more passes they completed were largely redundant. O’Neill’s side are used to operating without the ball and are unperturbed by the possession statistics that some other teams crave.
5. Azerbaijan will think they can reach a major tournament soon
Four years ago, when Northern Ireland lost in Baku, it was seen as an embarrassment. Yet a reverse this time would not have been considered so humiliating against a team that have taken great strides in recent years. They took a big leap forward as soon as Richard Almeida’s naturalisation was approved, with the Brazilian-born debutant arguably the best player on the pitch, while it is hoped young striker Renat Dadashov could have a similar impact further down the line. His development may have to come under a different manager, though, with the fiery Prosinecki perhaps now bound for Turkish club Bursaspor.