Northern Ireland compounded the shock of losing to lowly Luxembourg last month by succumbing to Azerbaijan, who were on the bottom of Group F, in Baku last night.
To make matters worse, the Manchester United defender Jonny Evans was sent off at the end after going through the back of Rauf Aliyev deep into injury-time.
Mahir Shukorov swung the resulting free-kick into the top corner to ensure that there would be no way back for the visiting side.
Azerbaijan, who are now coached by former Scotland manager Berti Vogts, had only won one World Cup qualifying match in the last dozen years and that was against Leichtenstein.
Vogts’ counterpart, Michael O’Neill, had responded to the defeat in Luxembourg by adopting a new-look 3-5-2. He added Craig Cathcart to his usual central defensive pairing of Evans and Gareth McAuley, while Chris Brunt returned from suspension in central midfield.
The visitors gradually settled into a period of possession but it took 15 minutes for them to get a shot on target, Brunt producing a rasping, 25-yard drive after good hold-up play from Martin Paterson.
Paterson and Lee Hodson then linked up down the right and when the latter’s cross was headed out, Paterson scrapped to win the ball back at the edge of the area and fed Jamie Ward a couple of yards out in the centre of goal but his header pinged back off the keeper.
Vuqar Nadirov blasted wide from eight yards out after a promising counter-attack by the hosts, and Cathcart then badly misjudged an offside to allow Rauf Aliyev a free volley at the far post but Roy Carroll pulled off a fine save. Northern Ireland ended the half in the ascendancy, however, with the lively Hodson laying on chances for both Ward and Paterson.
Azerbaijan started the second half with greater energy, hustling in the midfield and pressing when not in possession. They might have been rewarded with a goal five minutes in but an errant finish from Rufat Dadasov and a marginal offside flag dashed their hopes.
Northern Ireland were becoming disjointed and soon picked up the first booking of the match, Oliver Norwood lunging at Aliyev and earning a suspension for Tuesday’s game in Israel. The resulting free-kick was parried by Roy Carroll in the visitors’ goal but Azerbaijan were ahead by the 58th minute.
Araz Abdullayev and Aliyev combined down the right before the latter slipped in Dadasov, who prodded his shot home first time.
As Northern Ireland began to run out of steam, Mahir Shukurov and Abdullayev were starting to control things down the right flank. 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 hit the post but that was the prove Northern Ireland’s last chance, and far worse was to come.
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