Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign stumbles to new low with defeat in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan 2 Northern Ireland 0
Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign stumbled to another new low as they followed up defeat in Luxembourg with agony in Azerbaijan.
Manager Michael O'Neill had demanded a response to the dismal defeat last month but instead was handed another humiliating setback as goals from Rufat Dadasov and Mahir Shukurov secured the hosts a 2-0 win at the Bakcell Arena.
Northern Ireland had enjoyed the best of a goalless first half but their night took a dreadful turn for the worse after the break, culminating in an injury-time red card for Jonny Evans.
What awaits in Israel on Tuesday is anybody's guess, with Evans and defensive partner Gareth McAuley both suspended alongside midfielder Oliver Norwood.
It might have been different had Jamie Ward's point-blank header not rebounded off the Azerbaijan goalkeeper at 0-0 but the visitors can have few excuses.
O'Neill's team-sheet contained a sizeable surprise, with a 3-5-2 formation on show for the first time in his reign.
Craig Cathcart was added to the usual defensive pairing of Evans and McAuley, while Lee Hodson and Shane Ferguson were asked to play as wing-backs.
Hodson's first involvement was almost immediate, a promising break down the right channel in support of Martin Paterson.
Hodson got a decent cross away but the diminutive Ward was not the ideal target.
There were early nerves too, Norwood and Chris Brunt, back after suspension, both guilty of hit-and-hope balls up the field in the opening stages.
A bad back pass from Rasim Ramaldanov in the eighth minutes allowed Paterson to pick up the ball 30 yards from goal but with few options ahead he shot wastefully over the bar.
The visitors quickly grabbed a hold on possession but it took 15 minutes to work the goalkeeper, Brunt with a rasping 25-yard drive after good hold-up play from Paterson.
Ward's movement was good but as the chances followed him he could not get one over the line.
His finish was wayward when he met a Brunt back-heel and he put his hands to his head when sweeping a Hodson pass well over, but he was desperately close in between those opportunities.
Paterson and Hodson linked down the right and when the latter's cross was headed out, Paterson scrapped to win the ball back at the edge of the penalty box.
His flat cross found Ward a couple of yards out in the centre of goal and his header pinged back off the keeper, who could have known little about it.
Inches either side and it was a certain goal.
The frustration had barely subsided when Azerbaijan stretched Northern Ireland on the counter, leaving Vugar Nadirov a wonderful chance that he blasted wide from eight yards.
Emboldened by that Azerbaijan went forward again, Cathcart badly misjudging an offside to allow Rauf Aliyev a free volley at the far post.
Luckily for the Blackpool man, Roy Carroll was alert enough to pull off a fine save.
Northern Ireland ended in the ascendance, but when Paterson muscled in behind the defence he dragged his shot wide across goal and the half finished goalless.
Azerbaijan started the second period with greater energy, hustling in the midfield and pressing up when not in possession.
They might have been rewarded with a goal five minutes in but an errant finish from Dadasov and a marginal offside flag dashed their hopes.
Northern Ireland were becoming disjointed and soon picked up the first booking of the match, Norwood lunging at Aliyev and earning a suspension for Tuesday's game in Israel.
The resulting free-kick was parried by Carroll but Azerbaijan were ahead by the 58th minute.
Abdullayev and Aliyev combined down the right before the latter slipped in Dadasov, who prodded his shot home first time.
The ecstatic celebrations of the home side must have seemed eerily similar to those seen in Luxembourg last month.
While Northern Ireland's output was lessening by the minute, Shukurov and Abdullayev were starting to control things down the right flank and constantly threatening to fashion a second.
O'Neill looked to his bench to spare his blushes, Niall McGinn on for Hodson, then Billy McKay for Brunt.
The second change saw Ward move to the left and Ferguson drop back into a conventional back four but there was no significant effect.
Just two minutes remained when Paterson belted the upright but there was much worse to come.
First McAuley was received his second yellow of the campaign then Evans went through the back of Aliyev deep in injury-time and was immediately dismissed, with Shukurov adding the final insult by slotting the free-kick into the top corner.
Belfast Telegraph Digital