Dallas' late strike keeps North on road to Russia
Azerbaijan 0 Northern Ireland 1
Stuart Dallas' stoppage-time strike earned Northern Ireland a smash-and-grab success over Azerbaijan that kept them firmly on the road to Russia.
Missing eight players from the squad they took to France, and without Gareth McAuley for the final 65 minutes due to a first-half injury, Michael O'Neill's side struggled in the Baku heat and were thankful to the profligacy of Afran Ismayilov.
And they secured an unlikely victory when Dallas rifled in a late winner, his first goal in a competitive international, having been teed up by the cool-headed Jonny Evans in the box. Dallas' attempt was just the second on target that O'Neill's side had mustered; moments earlier, the manager had replaced substitute Niall McGinn with full-back Lee Hodson, seemingly to settle for 0-0.
But late goals have become a hallmark of this team in recent years and Dallas' winner keeps Northern Ireland in second place ahead of their September double-header with San Marino and the Czech Republic. The Azeris had been shell-shocked by the Northern Irish tactics in a 4-0 Belfast loss back in November, conceding three times from dead-ball situations, and the first set-piece arrived here in just the third minute.
Evans glanced it over and after some nervy moments at the start, Robert Prosinecki's defence settled into a more composed unit. On one of the few occasions they decided to go long, it produced a clear opening for Ramil Sheydaev as he raced beyond a clearly injured McAuley only to rifle his attempt over when faced by Michael McGovern.
The scare showed that McAuley, who had been declared fit despite sustaining a thigh injury last month, would be unable to continue and that meant O'Neill had to scrap his initial tactics with the introduction of McGinn.
As the visitors settled into their new system, Azerbaijan began to take control, yet there were still few chances. Chris Brunt had slotted in at left-back, and his foray forward almost produced a goal when a low whipped cross just evaded Liam Boyce and then Josh Magennis.
The half-time interval allowed O'Neill to tinker with his tactics again. Josh Magennis was pushed up to be the attack's spearhead, with Liam Boyce slotting in behind and McGinn and Dallas occupying the two flanks. There was a sense of injustice around the ground when Dallas scored in the second minute of stoppage time. He owed much to Evans' decision to square it to him rather than shooting, and the Leeds man steadied himself before firing into the corner.
Sunday Indo Sport