Belfast Telegraph

Vote for your Man of the Match as Northern Ireland deliver a potentially defining moment

Reporting from Baku, Paul Ferguson takes a look at the significance of the result

By Paul Ferguson

The true significance of Stuart Dallas' last-gasp winner for Northern Ireland against Azerbaijan on Saturday night in Baku will become evident in early autumn.

Immediate emotion inside the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium was of sheer delight that Leeds United winger Dallas, with his first competitive goal for his country, had won a game Northern Ireland seemingly had no right to win.

Yet in the bigger scheme of World Cup qualifying, and ultimately securing a coveted play-off spot by finishing in second place in Group C, Dallas finding the net in the 92nd minute may just have taken the match against the Germans at Windsor Park out of the equation.

It could be a dead rubber on October 5. For Northern Ireland, with the Czech Republic surprisingly only drawing against Norway in Oslo on Saturday night, could wrap up second place during the first week in September.

If Michael O'Neill's men defeat San Marino as expected and the Czechs lose against Germany on September 1, then Northern Ireland will only need a draw against the Czechs three days later at Windsor Park as they would be seven points clear with two games remaining. Therefore, Northern Ireland's first away win in this campaign and their first ever triumph on Azerbaijan soil was a major success story and should Northern Ireland qualify for Russia, then they may look back on Baku as a defining moment.

Chris Brunt was a star performer during the first half. The West Brom man started in midfield but after Gareth McAuley was forced off with an injury, Brunt reverted to left back in a four-man defence. He has urged caution and insists Northern Ireland, once their summer break is over, will only be concentrating on the San Marino match and not getting ahead of themselves.

"San Marino's next and everyone will be expecting us to go there and get a result," says Brunt. "But it's not always as easy as that - we've shown that in the past.

"It's important we go there and do a proper job and set up a big game in Belfast against the Czechs. Reaching the play-offs is easier said than done. We have given ourselves a good base and the win in Baku was a pretty big result for us.

"We'll take that, enjoy a break and look forward to San Marino in September."

It was a grind in hot and humid Baku. A few years ago Northern Ireland undoubtedly would have lost the match but such is their resolve and fortitude these days, it was Azerbaijan who were left shattered after receiving a late sucker punch.

Northern Ireland had to soak up a lot of pressure, they lost influential defender McAuley mid-way through the first half and Azerbaijan, with Brazilian native Richard Almeida pulling the strings in midfield, came up with few decent opportunities.

Manager O'Neill changed systems and personnel in those positions numerous times throughout the match but the major difference on the night was when the men in white had their one big chance, they took it.

Brunt concedes: "It wasn't a great performance but we knew it was going to be tough with the conditions and the way they set up.

"They played in a similar way to the Belfast game where they had a lot of the ball, but we were a lot better when we had it in that game.

"That's probably what we were disappointed with, but thankfully Stuart came up with a goal at the end and we've come away with three points which is what we were here to do."

Defensively Northern Ireland were largely solid, keeping their fifth clean sheet of the campaign, which goalkeeper Michael McGovern should be immensely proud of.

There were a few scares, especially when McAuley, due to his thigh injury, couldn't close down Ramil Shaydaev and he was free in on goal but not realising he had time, blasted his effort over the goal.

Or during the second half when Almeida found Afran Ismayilov in the right hand side of the box, he turned Brunt and drilled his shot low at McGovern who saved impressively.

But Evans, especially in the absence of McAuley, marshalled the troops at the back well and dependable Aaron Hughes, on 34, took over from the legendary Pat Jennings with the most Northern Ireland appearances in World Cup qualifying matches.

Conor McLaughlin on the right flank proved he is once again an asset going forward and it was his delivery which found Josh Magennis to set up Dallas' goal.

In the first half there were a couple of half chances with headers from Evans and Liam Boyce, while the former Cliftonville striker, starting his first competitive international, just missed out of connecting with a whipped in cross from Brunt, which would likely have resulted in a goal.

However, the 92nd minute was the perfect time to score. There simply could be no response from heartbroken Azerbaijan.

Brunt adds: "A draw would have been a decent result for us, but you see it a lot when one team pushes forward, you can you leave yourself open at the back.

"It was a good finish from Stuart. We all thought Jonny was going to shoot, but he played a good ball across and Stuarty took it well. We're just delighted with the win. Whether we deserved it or not is questionable, but we'll take it."

Looking back at the Euro 2016 qualifiers, Lafferty's injury time equaliser against Hungary at Windsor Park was a pivotal moment on Northern Ireland's journey to France.

Dallas' late winner in baking Baku, come September, could have similar significance.

Azerbaijan: Aghayev, Medvedev, Huseynov, Sadiqov, Pashaev, Huseynov, Garayev, Almeida, Ismayilov (Amirguliyev 84), Sheydaev (Abdullayev 90), Nazarov (Alasgarova 77). Subs not used: Mirzabekov, Israfilov, Gurbanov, Nazirov, Abisov, Makhmudov, Ramazanov, Quliyev, Agayev.

Northern Ireland: McGovern, McLaughlin, Hughes, McAuley (McGinn 25, Hodson 86), Evans, Dallas, Davis, Norwood, Brunt, Magennis, Boyce (Lafferty 77). Goal: Dallas 90. Subs not used: Ferguson, Flanagan, Mannus, Lafferty, Paton, Lund, McCartan, Thompson, Carroll.

Man of the match: Jonny Evans

Match rating: 6/10

Referee: Javier Fernández (Spain)

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