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Azerbaijan shatter Northern Ireland 2014 dream

BELFAST (AFP) –

Azerbaijan's Rauf Aliyev, pictured in 2011

Azerbaijan’s Rauf Aliyev, pictured in 2011. Northern Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were all but ended on Wednesday despite an equaliser deep into stoppage time securing a 1-1 draw at home to minnows Azerbaijan.

Northern Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were all but ended on Wednesday despite an equaliser deep into stoppage time securing 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 wasn’t until the sixth minute of added on time at the end of the match that Northern Ireland levelled through David Healy, their record goalscorer.

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 an embarrassing defeat, although the result meant the manager ended his first year in charge without a victory.

The draw left Northern Ireland with just three points from four games in Euro Zone Group F qualifying but O’Neill – whose side had earned a deserved 1-1 draw away in Portugal in their qualifier in October – insisted his side had shown “fantastic character” on Wednesday.

“The early goal obviously wasn’t in the plan and knocked us a bit, but I felt from that moment forward we basically dominated the game, we missed countless chances, but the character the players showed tonight was fantastic and I can’t ask any more of them,” O’Neill told Sky Sports.

“They went right to the death. We saw players playing the last few minutes with knocks and injuries. We got the very least we deserved, and we deserved a lot more than that.”

Azerbaijan went ahead in stunning style with their first attack of the match.

Javid Huseynov won the ball in midfield and laid off to Aliyev, who bent in an astounding shot from 30 yards.

Azerbaijan looked dangerous on the counter-attack and only a Gareth McAuley block denied Aliyev the chance of shooting again.

Northern Ireland had plenty of possession but struggled to make the final pass count.

It looked a last desperate throw of the dice when O’Neill sent on Healy for Cathcart and deep into a highly generous allowance of added-on time his free-kick earned Northern Ireland a draw to deny Azerbaijan what would have been a memorable victory.

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