It could have been worse for the Republic of Ireland but it should have been much better. A humiliation even deeper than March’s home defeat by Luxembourg was on the cards until Shane Duffy sent an unstoppable header into the net three minutes from the end. That negated the sensational goal scored for Azerbaijan by Emin Mahmudov on the stroke of half-time and it earned Ireland their first point of the qualifying campaign. But good luck finding anyone gullible enough to believe they will be at the next World Cup.
Belief in Stephen Kenny is also being tested severely. The manager can point to just one win – in a friendly against Andorra – from 15 matches in charge. The story of this match, however, was not really one of systemic failure; Ireland created enough chances to have beaten the team ranked 112th in the world, but players frittered them away until Duffy struck at last.
Ireland had salvaged encouragement from painful defeat in Portugal three days earlier but Kenny knew this was a very different challenge. The onus would be on his team to prise conservative visitors open, especially with fans – nearly 25,000 of them – allowed into the Aviva Stadium for the first since Kenny took charge.
The manager picked an attacking lineup featuring three forwards he previously nurtured at under-21 level – Troy Parrott, Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah. The team started brightly, playing with the intensity and style that the manager hopes to make the hallmark of this team. Josh Cullen created the first chance after three minutes but Matt Doherty headed over. Then Idah did brilliantly to set up Connolly, whose shot from eight yards was blocked. Séamus Coleman joined in the attack in the ninth minute, curling over from the edge of the area.
But Ireland’s fluency faded. Azerbaijan composed themselves and began to deflate the hosts with slow, confident passing. Midway through the first half Murtus Alasgarov forced Gavin Bazunu into his first serious save. Jayson Molumby and Idah both went close as Ireland responded, but there was a shock in store. Maybe Ireland should have been expecting it given how Kenny’s luck has gone so far. Certainly Irish players should have closed down Mahmudov as he decided what to do at over 25 yards from goal. Instead the Neftchi Baku midfielder was given time and space to shoot. He walloped the ball into the top corner, to an audible gasp from the crowd.
Molumby headed wide from seven yards early in the second half. Parrott at least forced Azerbaijan’s goalkeeper into a save just after the hour. Then Egan should have scored but nodded wide from six yards. Duffy did likewise five minutes later. Three minutes from time, Duffy finally broke through, butting Cullen’s cross into the net from eight yards. Ireland rallied but could not summon a winner.