Northern Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were all but ended on Wednesday despite an equalizer deep into stoppage-time that secured a 1-1 draw at home to minnows Azerbaijan.
Rauf Aliyev’s brilliant strike gave Azerbaijan a fifth-minute lead at Belfast’s Windsor Park and it was not until the sixth minute of stoppage-time at the end of the match that Northern Ireland leveled through David Healy.
By then Craig Cathcart and Chris Baird had wasted four good chances between them to win the game for the home side, before Healy’s first goal in four years spared Michael O’Neill’s men from defeat.
The draw left Northern Ireland with just three points from four games in European Group F qualifying.
Azerbaijan went ahead in stunning style with their first attack of the match, Javid Huseynov winning the ball in midfield and laying off to Aliyev, who bent in an astounding shot from 20m.
It looked a last desperate throw of the dice when O’Neill sent on Healy for Cathcart and deep into stoppage-time his free-kick earned Northern Ireland a point.
In Wednesday’s only other World Cup qualifier in Europe, Montenegro won their home match against San Marino 3-0 to go top of Group H.
Montenegro have 10 points from four games, two more than second-placed England.
Additional reporting by staff writer