Chris Brunt and Will Grigg return as the North eye second place in Group C
CHRIS BRUNT and Will Grigg have returned to the Northern Ireland squad for the World Cup Group C qualifier against Azerbaijan at Windsor Park on November 11.
West Bromwich Albion clubman Brunt recently returned to club action after he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in May, while Wigan Athletic striker Grigg gets the chance to reignite his international career after missing October’s qualifiers to be present at the birth and early days of his child.
Manager Michael O’Neill omitted injured Ross County striker Liam Boyce and Peterborough's Michael Smith, both of whom were originally called up for the October games with San Marino and Germany, while Aaron Hughes and Paul Paton, drafted into the last squad after injuries to others, are included. Victory over the unbeaten Azerbaijanis will see Northern Ireland leapfrog them and take second place in Group C.
“I spoke to Chris before I put the squad together,” O’Neill said.
“I had a good conversation with him and I asked him how he felt about coming in - he said he was ready to come back into the squad, he feels he’s more than capable of being ready to play.
“He had 90 minutes at the weekend in a very tough game against Man City - it doesn’t get any tougher than that to be honest - so I think he’s ready and he’s itching to play. Obviously, having missed out on the summer he’s keen to get back and he recognises the importance of this match.”
Left-sided midfielder/defender Brunt was one of four players in the squad who featured in the Premier League last weekend - the others were WBA team-mates Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley and Southampton midfielder Steven Davis.
“We’d love to have 40 [Premier League players],” said O’Neill.
“So we can’t afford to ignore one of them and that’s the reality. Chris is a Premier League player and he’s been one for his whole career - we’ve played him at left-back over the last couple of years and he has done a great job for us there. His overall quality, his experience of playing top level football and his delivery from play and from set-pieces.
“If we took Shane Ferguson out, we don’t have another left-footed player in the squad, so it means we’re a bit predictable in terms of delivery from set-pieces and having Chris back will enhance our threat.”
With 54 caps under his belt, Brunt was desperately unlucky to miss out on the European Championships during the summer and O’Neill says he didn’t want his international career to end on such a sour note.
“I think the big thing for Chris is that he didn’t want to end his Northern Ireland career being remembered for missing out on the Euros,” he said.
“His rehab and the work he has done to get back have been fantastic and the older you get the more difficult it is to recover from injuries, but I think, nowadays, coming back from a cruciate isn’t as career threatening as it was in the past.”
Meanwhile, Robert Prosinecki’s Azerbaijan are currently second in Group C with seven points from three games. They began with a 1-0 win in San Marino, then beat Norway in Baku by the same scoreline and, like Northern Ireland, took a point from a 0-0 draw from their visit to the Czech Republic in their third fixture.
“We don’t want to go six points behind them and obviously a defeat would put us in that position,” said O’Neill.
“I don’t think it’ll be a defining game. We’ve been away to the Czech Republic, we’ve been away to Germany so the two most difficult games in the group we’ve dealt with. This game could give us a lot of momentum going into the second half of the group but it’s not a make-or-break if it doesn’t go our way.
“Azerbaijan will strongly fancy that they can finish in a top two position so that’ll be the challenge. They are very ambitious as a country, they’ve had a great start and we’ll have to be at our best to beat them.
“They play very deep in the games we’ve watched and they pose a much great threat than San Marino did and they are strong defensively. We’re going to have be patient - this is a game that’ll be tense and tight and there’ll be very little in it.”
NORTHERN IRELAND SQUAD
M McGovern (Norwich), A Mannus (St Johnstone), T Carson (Hartlepool), G McAuley, J Evans (both West Brom), A Hughes (Kerala Blasters), C McLaughlin (Fleetwood), L Hodson (Rangers), T Flanagan (Burton), R McGivern (Shrewsbury), C Brunt (West Brom), S Davis (Southampton), N McGinn (Aberdeen), O Norwood (Brighton), C Evans (Blackburn), J Ward (Nottingham Forest), S Ferguson (Millwall), S Dallas (Leeds), P McNair (Sunderland), M Lund (Rochdale), P Paton (St Johnstone), K Lafferty (Norwich), J Magennis (Charlton), C Washington (QPR), W Grigg (Wigan).