Oct 12 2013
Michael O'Neill bemoaned another "harsh lesson" for his Northern Ireland side after they faltered again in one of European football's unheralded outposts.
O'Neill's team were beaten 2-0 by Azerbaijan on a dreadful night in Baku, underlining rather than avenging last month's similarly depressing 3-2 reverse in Luxembourg.
The result, courtesy of goals from Rufat Dadasov and Mahir Shukurov, means Northern Ireland have taken just two points from a possible 12 against the two lowest ranked teams in their World Cup qualifiying group, and they now have just one match to avoid an embarrassing bottom-placed finish.
O'Neill has had rather too many disappointing results to reflect on in his first campaign in charge but gave a measured assessment after the latest installment.
"It's another harsh lesson, the players have made it difficult for themselves in this campaign," he said.
"I'm not going to turn around and say we've been progressing at a rate of knots. We're progressing in small steps and taking a few setbacks along the way. This was another one.
"Some of our performances have been good but we just have to live with the results and they've been poor, there's no getting away from that."
The result was compounded by Jonny Evans' injury-time red card for a crude foul that led directly to Azerbaijan's second.
Evans will now be suspended for Tuesday's campaign-ending clash in Israel, alongside Gareth McAuley, who was booked for talking back to the referee, and Oliver Norwood.
O'Neill declined to hold his tongue on those incidents, though insists his side have been harshly treated by officials over the course of the qualification group.
"Jonny has admitted it was frustration so that was stupid for a player of his level and the level he plays at with Manchester United, he should know better," said O'Neill.
"You could see frustration creeping in to the players as the game went on, not only towards the opposition but also to the referee.
"We have to learn to control that. And as for Gareth, anything for dissent is inexcusable, simple as that.
"But for a team like us, who who have committed virtually the fewest fouls in Europe, to have the disciplinary record we have is a bit of a joke."
Despite finishing with 10 men and suffering more unwanted disciplinary problems, O'Neill was more concerned with the perceived time-wasting tactics of the opposition.
He even claimed Azerbaijan boss Berti Vogts said sorry for that, though the German denied it.
"Berti Vogts apologised to me at the end for the behaviour of his players - as he did in Belfast," said O'Neill.
"I thought the referee should have been stronger. Azerbaijan players went down with every challenge and always tried to stop the game."
Vogts, who was given a standing ovation by the local media as he arrived for his briefing, had a different view of their exchange.
He said: "No, of course I did not apologise, I said 'good luck in Israel'. Why would I apologise?
"I am very, very happy with my players, especially with the second half.
"I give credit to my opponent, they should have scored two goals in the first half but after that we played very, very good football.
"The atmosphere was wonderful, our first win in the qualifiers...great for the team and for the fans."