The hosts avoided an embarrassing defeat with their substitute's last-gasp free kick, but will ultimately see the draw as a very disappointing resultDavid Healy's injury time free kick salvaged a draw for Northern Ireland in Wednesday's Group F World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan at Windsor Park.
Rauf Aliyev’s stunning fifth minute strike looked, until the game's dying moments, to be the difference between the two sides on an evening in which Michael O'Neill's side enjoyed the majority of play but too often failed to capitalise on a number of fine goalscoring opportunities.
The result keeps Northern Ireland a point ahead of Wednesday's opponents and four points away from a possible play-off spot, with seven games left to play.
A single point at home to the world's 123rd-ranked nation will nonetheless be seen as a missed opportunity for O'Neill's side, though, and indeed extends their winless run to 11 games.
The hosts came into the game in high confidence following their impressive draw away to Portugal, and O’Neill made four changes from October’s clash, welcoming Dean Shiels, Shane Ferguson, Gareth McAuley and debutant Daniel Lafferty into his starting line-up.
Northern Ireland were keen to utilise their wide men early on, and could have taken the lead after only three minutes had Kyle Laffery been able to direct his header under the crossbar after some fine wing play from Niall McGinn.
Lafferty's inability to work the goalkeeper from a fairly simple chance was to set the theme for much of the hosts' night.
The striker was made to rue his miss only a minute later, as Azerbaijani forward Rauf Aliyev collected the ball in a seemingly harmless position in front of the Northern Ireland defence, cut onto his left foot and lashed a swerving 25-yard strike inside Roy Carroll’s right-hand post, sending Windsor Park into a stunned silence.
The shock nature of the visitors' early lead was evident in Northern Ireland's reaction as they struggled to rediscover their early attacking spark until around the half-hour mark, when Kyle Lafferty’s failure to control a Steven Davis pass and Craig Cathcart’s misplaced header both resulted in the squandering of presentable chances to draw level.
Shiels was also somewhat unfortunate to see his penalty claim rejected in favour of a booking for simulation by referee Victor Shvetsov, shortly before Daniel Lafferty glanced a header over the crossbar on the stroke of half time.
O'Neill’s side resumed their momentum immediately after the break, with Cathcart again failing to test the opposition goalkeeper with a close-range volley following a McAuley knockdown.
Chris Baird then sent a pair of glorious headed chances wide of Salahat Agayev’s goal having met inviting left wing crosses from Shane Ferguson and substitute Paddy McCourt.
Frustration began to set in for the hosts as Kyle Lafferty and Baird both collected second-half bookings that will see them miss their next fixture, and Azerbaijan made the most of any chance to run down the clock.
The hosts' blushes were largely spared in the game's final moments, however, as substitute Healy stroked a free kick past a poorly positioned wall and into the far corner of Agayev's net.