Northern Ireland need to make home advantage count against Azerbaijan
World Cup 2018 Qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan (Friday, Windsor Park, 7.45pm, live on Sky Sports 1)
IF NORTHERN Ireland are to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia then they have to beat Azerbaijan on Friday.
Three points will see the North leapfrog the eastern Europeans into second place in Group C until the action resumes in March and leave them in a position of real strength with their two toughest games - away to Germany and the Czech Republic - already behind them.
Anything less than a home win and ambitious Azerbaijan will be in the boxseat with Northern Ireland sitting fourth with six games to go and the visitors have pooped the party in Belfast before.
When Azerbaijan last visited Windsor Park four years ago it took a late David Healy goal to salvage a point for the North but that was before Michael O’Neill took over and added discipline, organisation and belief to the side.
Nowadays, to quote Blackadder, they’re ‘not at home to Mr and Mrs cock-up’ and have shown an ability to get the job done when it matters. But it won’t be easy, Azerbaijan are one of only four teams in qualifying yet to concede a goal and they’ve eked out 1-0 wins against San Marino and Norway so O’Neill expects a mixture of defensive steel and pacey counterattacking from the visitors.
“They’ve played with a defensive structure and very deep and it has worked for them,” said O’Neill.
“They are obviously a threat on the counterattack as well so we anticipate, given how they set up to play against Norway at home and the Czech Republic away, that it’ll be a similar approach here. They’ll come initially to make sure they’re not beaten and then take three points and they’ll do that by being a threat on the counterattack.”
O’Neill concedes that home form will be crucial to the North’s chances of coming out of a very competitive group. Germany are already installed as group winners and San Marino whipping boys with the other four countries jostling for the runners-up spot.
“It’s very important to take as many points as we can from the home games,” said the Northern Ireland manager.
“Seven points from four games would be a good return and it will set us up nicely for the second half of the campaign. I don’t think it’s make or break - there’s six games after this and there’s very little between ourselves, Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic and Norway. Our aim is to put ourselves in a position of strength and certainly three points would do that.
“We don’t want to be in a position where we’d be six points behind Azerbaijan, so we have to stop the momentum that they’ve got and it would be nice for us to be sitting second in the group until we meet again in March.
“We have a home game [against Norway] before the trip to Azerbaijan in June and his game is very important for creating momentum and giving us a foothold to go on and be competitive in the second half of the group.”
Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis admits that looking the table during the qualifiers for Euro 2016 and seeing his side top or second in the group, pushed the North on to make it to France.
“Momentum in football is huge,” he said.
“It’s a very important game for us. I don’t necessarily think it will define where we’ll finish in the group but it gives us an opportunity to get into the position we wanted to be going into March. It’s important that our home form is consistent and we pick up wins here so we’re determined to go out and get the result.”
An early goal would make a game of it tonight but it’s difficult to see one coming because Northern Ireland give nothing away while Azerbaijan defend, and attack, as a unit. The eastern European side, managed by former Barcelona and Croatia star Robert Prosinecki, haven’t conceded a goal in this group yet so it will take the North time to break them down.
Northern Ireland will have a lot of the ball and skipper Davis could well be the key to breaking the deadlock. His runs from midfield opened up a San Marino defence that resisted for two-thirds of the game last month but the North emerged as 4-0 winners on the night.
Jamie Ward scored that night but he and Stuart Dallas miss out through injury. Ward’s energy will be missed but to counter that O’Neill welcomes back West Brom’s Chris Brunt who could slot in on the left of midfield.
Josh Magennis should continue up front but Kyle Lafferty’s goal for Norwich against Leeds last weekend hints a return to form at club level for the Fermanagh native and Will Grigg will also play a part.
It’s over three years since Northern Ireland lost at home and since that 3-0 loss to Portugal they’ve racked up seven wins and two draws. They should make it eight tonight with a 2-0 victory that will give them momentum for the business end of this group next year.
Northern Ireland (possible): McGovern, McLaughlin, McAuley, J Evans, Ferguson, C Evans, Norwood, Davis, Brunt, McGinn, Magennis