Michael O'Neill, the Northern Ireland manager, refused to round on his players despite another morale-sapping result at Windsor Park.
After last month's encouraging draw in Portugal, the team's Belfast blues returned with a draw against lowly Azerbaijan. O'Neill's side had exactly the same result when Luxembourg visited in September and prior to the game the former Shamrock Rovers manager had in no uncertain terms stated the need for a first win of the campaign.
Instead, he was almost faced with a humbling defeat as Rauf Aliyev struck a sensational opener in the fifth minute before the hosts wasted a handful of wonderful chances.
Kyle Lafferty, Craig Cathcart and Chris Baird all missed good opportunities – the latter heading wide twice from perfect positions. In the end it fell to record goalscorer and late substitute David Healy to register his first goal in four years, salvaging a point five minutes into added time.
Yet although O'Neill admitted the result was not acceptable he declined to criticise his side's efforts. "I'm hugely disappointed not to win the game because we did everything in our power to do that," he said. "The players never stopped believing and they got the very least they deserved. They created so many chances."
Northern Ireland Carroll, Danny Lafferty, Cathcart (Healy, 81), Hughes, Ferguson, Davis, Baird, McAuley, McGinn (Brunt, 66), Shiels (McCourt, 55), Kyle Lafferty. Substitutes not used Mannus, Evans, Norwood, Grigg, McGovern.
Azerbaijan Salahat Agayev, Levin, Abusov, Ramaldanov (Naziri, 72), Medvedev, Gokdemir (Guseynov, 63) Huseynov, Amirquliev, Nadirov, Aliyev, Ozkara (Javadov, 78). Substitutes not used Popovich, Sadygov, Chertoganov, Subasic, Ahmadov, Mammadov, Pamuk, Nazirov.
Referee V Shvetsov (Ukraine).
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