Macdara Ferris reports from Windsor Park
It looked like it was going to be a frustrating night in Belfast for Northern Ireland as Belarus seemed set to hold Michael O’Neill’s men to a 1-1 draw only for substitute Josh Magennis to be the match winner three minutes from time.
The home team had the bulk of the possession and created the majority of the chances and so they did deserve the win, even if the winning goal came so late.
A Jonny Evans header gave the home team the lead on 30 minutes but they allowed Igor Stasevich to equalise three minutes later and, with the clock ticking down, it looked like their EURO 2020 qualification bid was over before it had even begun.
With their last four games in their qualifying campaign coming against the Netherlands and Germany, it really was crucial for Norn Iron to take six points from their opening EURO 2020 qualifiers.
Thankfully from the home supporters’ perspective, they were able to follow up Thursday’s 2-0 win over Estonia by taking another three on Sunday night.
Northern Ireland could feel hard done by in not by taking a lead into the break. Michael O’Neill’s Green and White Army dominated the play in the opening half.
They had a number of set pieces that tested the visitors, who seemed willing to concede free kicks in dangerous positions in quite a cavalier manner.
Kyle Lafferty and Paddy McNair seemed to get particular attention from the Belarussian defenders.
There was a succession of McNair corners and it was from such a set piece that the home side took the lead on the half hour mark.
Belarus inconceivably gave Jonny Evans way too much room on the six yard line and he steered his header home for the opener.
That goal came from a corner that Lafferty had won. The Rangers striker’s well struck shot was turned around the post for a set piece that they made the most from.
O’Neill will have been frustrated that his team could only hold onto the lead for three minutes but there was a huge slice of luck for the visitors with their equaliser.
Stasevich cut in from the left and let fly with his right boot. It looked like Bailey Peacock-Farrell had the shot covered only for the ball to loop off Stuart Dallas and tantalisingly just above the keeper’s outstretched hand.
It was Belarus’ first real chance of the game as they seemed content to sit deep for most of the opening half.
Only occasionally did they break forward, with 37-year-old Alex Helb orchestrating their play when he got on the ball.
At the other end Jordan Jones was causing Igor Shitov trouble with his pace. The Kilmarnock winger saw his crosses turned behind for corners on a couple of occasions.
George Saville and McGinn went close with shots late in the half but the teams trooped off level at the break.
It was more of the same in the second half as Northern Ireland put enough pressure on Belarus to force mistakes, giving the home team chances to shoot.
Lafferty did excellently to win the ball and feed Jones. His shot was cleared to McNair but his effort was another blocked effort on the way towards goal.
On the damp Windsor Park surface, Norn Iron zipped the ball around with some slick passing but in front of goal they were mostly reduced to shots from distance as the centre back pairing of Mikhail Sivakov and Aleksandr Martynovich’s were able to deal with the threat from crosses coming from Jones and McGinn.
Laferty should have steered Jamal Lewis’ cross home on 78 minutes and he was replaced moments later by Liam Boyce as O’Neill threw on the Burton Albion striker to lead the line till the end of the game.
It was to be another sub who would be the match winner, however, and much to the relief of the home supporters.
McNair found some space late on and he made it count as he drilled a low cross for substitute Josh Magennis to turn home.
The full house at Windsor Park leapt to their feet as Northern Ireland remain in the hunt for a EURO 2020 qualification spot.
Northern Ireland: Bailey Peacock-Farrell; Stuart Dallas, Craig Cathcart, Johnny Evans, Jamal Lewis; Paddy McNair, Steven Davis ©, George Saville; Niall McGinn (Josh Magennis 68), Kyle Lafferty (Liam Boyce 79), Jordan Jones (Shane Ferguson 85).
Subs not used: Michael McGovern, Conor Hazard, Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Conor McLaughlin, Tom Flanagan, Jordan Thompson, Paul Smyth, Conor Washington.
Belarus: Andrei Gorbunov; Igor Shitov (Denis Polyakov 73), ©, Alyaksandr Martynovich, Mikhail Sivakov, Maksim Volodko; Ivan Maevski, Alex Hleb (Anton Putilo 66), Stanislav Dragun; Pavel Savitski (Pavel Nekhaychik 85), Denis Laptev, Igor Stasevich;
Subs not used: Anton Chichkan, Anton Chichkan, Aleksei Rios, Anton Saroka, Sergei Kislyak, Yuri Kendysh, Zakhar Volkov, Mikalay Signevich.
Booked: Denis Laptev (82).
Referee: Pawel Raczkowski (Poland)
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Paddy McNair (Northern Ireland).