Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: Too little too late as Azerbaijan kill Northern Ireland's World Cup dream

More Windsor woe then. This was another night of misery. We really should be getting used to them by now, but this one was desperately hard to take.

Forget that trip to Rio in 2014. We are going nowhere — in more ways than one.

Yes, David Healy scored a superb free-kick in injury time to raise some cheer inside the stadium, but by then the damage had been done.

Healy's strike, his first since 2008, earned a 1-1 draw and we should hail our record goalscorer for that, otherwise the result would have been even more embarrassing.

But let's face facts here, this was a game Northern Ireland thought they could win and they ought to have with plenty to spare.

Having Healy come off the bench to snatch a point does not paint over the cracks of what was a poor performance, littered with pitiful finishing with some dreadful ill discipline thrown in for good measure.

After producing an outstanding display last month in the World Cup qualifier to draw 1-1 in Portugal, there was a real expectancy ahead of last night's match at home to Azerbaijan.

Not just amongst the fans, but the players and manager too.

Michael O'Neill was full of confidence on the eve of the Group F clash, outlining his belief that he felt his long wait in gaining a win as Northern Ireland boss would be over.

Come 10pm last night, it wasn't. After the brilliant efforts in Porto, this was very much a case of one step forward and two back.

Drawing at home to a bunch of part-timers in Luxembourg in September was bad enough.

But to do it again against Azerbaijan was just plain awful.

One result like that in a qualifying campaign could be construed as careless but two is criminal. Victory against Azerbaijan would have seen Northern Ireland up to five points, two behind Israel and Portugal battling for second place, which rewards team with a play-off.

Instead we are left with three from four games.

The World Cup dream is over. Admittedly it was never a realistic prospect, with third place the best we could hope for, with Russia and Portugal in the group, but not to be contention this early is a crushing blow.

Azerbaijan were there for the taking. Since being defeated at Windsor in 2005, they have played 19 competitive games on the road losing 17, drawing one and beating Liechtenstein.

Away from home they are rubbish.

Added to that most of their players play in a division that is considered a small step up from the League of Ireland.

And this wasn't even their best team. They had SEVEN players out injured.

Northern Ireland had a strong side, starting with five Premier League players, and others who play in the top flight in Greece, Switzerland and Scotland.

Chance after chance came and went for the hosts.

Kyle Lafferty headed over when he should have netted from Niall McGinn's cross.

Lafferty missed again when he failed to control a perfectly weighted Steve Davis ball allowing the goalkeeper to smother his effort.

Craig Cathcart was also guilty of wastefulness — in the first half he headed inches wide when free in the box and in the second blazed over the bar.

Chris Baird should have found the net but headed off target from Shane Ferguson's delivery.

And then Baird nodded wide again just yards out from a Paddy McCourt assist after the Celtic ace had shown some imagination as a second half substitute. Lafferty, Cathcart and Baird could and should have been celebrating a brace each.

SIX glorious chances and not a goal to show for it. In contrast Rauf Aliyev was on the button for Azerbaijan smashing home a cracker from distance five minutes in.

To their credit the Windsor Park crowd stayed with the team, but certain players lost their discipline with Lafferty booked for diving and Baird for dissent meaning both miss the next qualifier at home to Russia in March.

Not clever. At least Healy showed his class with that goal right at the death.

But it all had that feeling of too little, too late.

Belfast Telegraph


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