Toothless Northern Ireland were stunned as Kazakhstan substitute Abat Aimbetov struck at the death to snatch a 1-0 Euro 2024 qualifying victory at Windsor Park.
As Northern Ireland had been piling forward in search of a late winner themselves, Aimbetov broke from his own half, riding Craig Cathcart’s challenge and capitalising when a sliding Paddy McNair got in the way of Ciaron Brown, slotting the ball past Bailey Peacock-Farrell to stun the home crowd.
Michael O’Neill had said he was not thinking about qualifying for next summer’s finals in the wake of Friday’s 1-0 defeat in Denmark, and this result is another huge blow as they have only three points, earned against minnows San Marino, from their opening four games.
When Northern Ireland left Copenhagen after Friday’s 1-0 defeat there was optimism about the way they had battled, only denied a late equaliser by a marginal offside, but the mood was very different here as the final whistle was greeted with boos.
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) June 19, 2023
Northern Ireland’s inability to overcome a side 50 places below them in the rankings at home showed the limitations of this young squad, robbed of experience by injuries to senior players.
Another blank means Northern Ireland have only scored two in their last nine home matches in qualifying campaigns, with the lack of quality in the final third thwarting their ambitions.
O’Neill had spoken about the difficulty of adjusting his side’s mindset from the predominantly defensive outlook they had in Copenhagen on Friday to playing on the front foot at home, but even though they kept Kazakhstan pegged back for long patches, there were only occasional threats.
Cathcart returned from the back injury that kept him out on Friday but there was no Conor Bradley, sidelined after hyperextending his knee in Copenhagen, and his attacking threat was missed.
Trai Hume, switched to right back in place of Bradley, sent an early shot over from the edge of the box before Dion Charles, back in ahead of Shayne Lavery, failed to keep a shot down after being played in by Shea Charles.
But arguably the best chance of the half belonged to Kazakhstan as Maxim Samorodov raced away from McNair and turned inside Hume, only to drag his shot wide of the post from eight yards with just Peacock-Farrell to beat.
Northern Ireland responded well. Isaac Price’s shot from the edge of the box deflected off Abzal Beysebekov, looping away from the goalkeeper and heading just wide of the post.
From the resulting corner, McNair headed back into the danger zone but Cathcart could not keep it down from only four yards out.
The tempo soon dipped, Northern Ireland seemingly struggling for new ideas, and they did not threaten again until the 44th minute. Dion Charles stood the ball up for George Saville but the Millwall midfielder, still without an international goal after 46 caps, headed over from close range.
The half ended with Baktiyor Zainutdinov flashing a shot wide while surrounded by Northern Ireland defenders.
Northern Ireland’s frustrations continued after the break. Saville flashed the ball across the face of goal early in the half – the cross only needed a touch but there was nobody there to add it.
Price had the chance to release Dion Charles as Northern Ireland tried to break from a Kazakhstan corner, but he played the ball behind the Bolton forward when there was half a pitch to run in to.
The Windsor Park atmosphere was flat, the tiny pocket of Kazakhstan fans audible over the murmurs coming from the Kop.
Conor McMenamin replaced Jonny Evans, soon seen with an ice pack on his shoulder, and more attacking reinforcements came in the shape of Lavery and Dale Taylor, but besides an angled McMenamin shot tipped over by Igor Shatskiy, there was little to excite the crowd before Aimbetov’s killer late blow.