Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill was full of praise for his side after they took a giant stride towards a first World Cup finals appearance since 1986.
Stuart Dallas’ struck an injury-time winner to give Northern Ireland a precious 1-0 win over Azerbaijan in Baku, to move O’Neill’s men four points clear in second place in Group C.
With Northern Ireland hanging on for a draw, the Leeds United midfielder delivered a sucker-punch in stoppage time as he fired home from a Jonny Evans pass, after the hosts had squandered three good chances to take the points and keep their own play-off hopes alive.
The win saw Northern Ireland increase the gap on third-placed Czech Republic, who were held to a 1-1 by Norway in Oslo, and O’Neill’s men now look on course to secure second place and a play-off spot.
Group leaders Germany beat San Marino 7-0 to maintain the world champions’ five-point cushion over O’Neill’s side.
“Three, four years ago we would have lost this game 1-0 and people would not be surprised by that,” said O’Neill.
“The result is testament to the spirit in the team. We stayed in the game, fought hard and got a lucky break.
“It was an extremely tough game, as we knew it would be. Azerbaijan are a very good team.
“It was a difficult for us, with the conditions and also with a number of our players who have not played for nearly six weeks.
“But we are grateful to get the result and I can understand Azerbaijan’s frustration.
“Stuart did a huge amount of work in the game and showed great quality to finish as he did.”
One downside for Northern Ireland was the early loss of Gareth McAuley, who’d missed the friendly with New Zealand with a thigh injury.
The West Brom defender was forced off after just 23 minutes in Baku after the injury reoccurred, forcing O’Neill to switch from a 3-5-2 formation to 4-3-3.
“Jonny Evans and Aaron Hughes were excellent at centre-back and for Jonny to find that composure in the box for the goal,” said O’Neill.
Northern Ireland now travel to San Marion on 1 September before hosting the Czech Republic four days later for a game which could decide the play-off spot.
The following month they welcome Germany to Windsor Park before completing their qualifying campaign against Norway in Oslo.
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