O'Neill hails fighting spirit after North grab victory
Stuart Dallas' stoppage-time strike earned Northern Ireland a smash-and-grab 1-0 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 in a competitive international, having been teed up by the cool-headed Jonny Evans.
Dallas' attempt was just the second on target that O'Neill's side had mustered and moments earlier he had replaced substitute Niall McGinn with full-back Lee Hodson, seemingly to settle for a 0-0 stalemate.
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.
"This was the most difficult game that we could have had on June 10 in Baku but it has been very difficult because of the conditions and with the players' seasons being finished," manager Michael O'Neill said.
"I think the spirit was everything tonight. Three, four years ago we would have lost this game 1-0 and people would not be surprised by that.
"We have eight players missing from the squad in France and losing McAuley was a big blow. The result is testament to the spirit that is in the team.
"It was an extremely tough game, as we knew it would be against a very tough team. This team are a very good team.
"We stayed in the game, fought hard and we got a lucky break to win the game but it was a difficult game for us, with the conditions and also with a number of our players who have not played for nearly six weeks.
"We knew it would be difficult but we're grateful to get the result and I can understand Azerbaijan's frustration.
"The game was always going to be very tight. We took our chance and we're delighted with the three points."