Second spot in World Cup group would do the North just fine says Jonny Evans
JONNY EVANS says it would be a huge boost if Northern Ireland can move up to second place in Group C going into 2017.
In order to do that, a win at home to Azerbaijan on Friday night is required and the West Brom defender feels three points will go a long way to achieving the goal of qualifying for two successive tournaments.
“That would be massive because you have such a big break now between international games. I know it was very important in the last campaign. You don’t want to be away from the international scene for too long, looking at the group table and not being where you want to be because you start getting itchy feet then,” said the 28-year-old.
“We want to leave, over the Christmas period and going into the next set of qualifiers in the New Year, in a good position and feeling that we’re in with a great chance of qualifying again.
“Obviously, playing league football, the games come thick and fast and with international football, you don’t have that luxury. Every game counts and every point counts.”
The defender, who will turn 29 early in the new year, says that since Northern Ireland last played the Azeris in Belfast - a 1-1 draw in November 2012 - there has been a shift in mentality for both teams.
That means Michael O’Neill’s men can ill afford a repeat performance: “The last game against them at home, I think we equalised late on, David Healy with a free-kick," he added.
"I think we were in control in that game. I know back then we were disappointed with the result. I think now it would be even more so and it would really derail our campaign if we were to perform like that again. It would be disappointing for us to perform like that.
“In terms of how we approach the game, we’re in a better mindset and we’ve got a much clearer plan going into the game of how we’re going to win and how we’re going to achieve the best result.
“I think football in general, on the international stage, has improved a lot over the last five or six years. You see teams like Azerbaijan and ourselves have improved and everyone is bridging the gap between each other. It’s becoming a lot more tactical and I think fitness levels of players throughout the world are now at a certain level.
“Azerbaijan have a good coach [Robert Prosinecki], who was obviously a very good player in his day and he’s got them well organised, similar to what Michael is doing with us.”
Unlike recent years, when the starting 11 all but picked itself, Evans feels that there is a great depth within the squad and competition for places is at a relative high.
That’s hasn’t always been the case and the former Manchester United man feels whoever gets the nod on Friday night is more than up to the task.
“Michael made a few decisions over the last couple of games and it showed that he wasn’t afraid to do that and that he trusted his players. I think that’s a big call for a manager to make and he was rewarded for that and he was rewarded by the players that came in,” Evans said.
“I think any time he has brought players in, they do a job and they play really well. There is great competition within the squad and I think it can only benefit us going forward. It gives us confidence that, if someone gets injured, a good players who has been in the team quite a while, you can always get someone to step in.
"Hopefully, throughout the campaign, that can really benefit us.”