Northern Ireland seeking to rule Azerbaijan out of play-off race
World Cup European qualifying group C: Azerbaijan v Northern Ireland (Tofiq Bahramov Republican Stadium, 5pm Irish time, Saturday)
IN a city increasingly associated with boxing, Northern Ireland are aiming to land another knockout blow on play-off rivals.
A second group win over Azerbaijan would almost certainly put the hosts out of the running for the tournament in neighbouring Russia next year, and would also strengthen the visitors’ hold on second spot.
NI boss Michael O’Neill got an early dig in when he dampened down home excitement about a South American ‘star’ set to feature for the hosts, declaring: “I think the best Brazilians don't always play in Azerbaijan.”
Azeris’ manager Robert Prosinecki could field Brazilian-born Qarabag playmaker Richard Almeida for the first time after his naturalisation to represent his adopted country was approved by FIFA last week under the five-year residency rule.
There is plenty of buzz about Almeida's expected bow at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium among the locals, yet O'Neill countered by stating his midfield trio of Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood and Chris Brunt will have seen foes of great ability plenty of times in the English domestic leagues.
"Regarding Richard Almeida, we have watched him play for his club, we know this will be his first game for Azerbaijan and we respect his quality as a player," O'Neill said.
"But tomorrow night he will play against three midfield players who play in the English Premier League, so they play against Brazilians, Argentinians, Spanish, Italians. I think the best Brazilians don't always play in Azerbaijan."
O’Neill’s men have travelled with a certain confidence, via a Turkish training camp in order to acclimatise to the Baku heat, but know that Azerbaijan will make them sweat for victory this time.
Still, the set piece threat that led to three of the four goals in that 4-0 Windsor Park win will remain. NI netted a set piece version of a ‘perfect hat-trick’ that night, with the first three goals stemming from a long throw, a free kick, then a corner.
The long throw specialist, Josh Magennis is likely to start again against the Azeris, and is likely to be involved up front alongside the in-form Liam Boyce, who bagged the only goal against All Whites last Friday.
Boyce’s scoring record this season means that Northern Ireland will worry less about the absence of their last two competitive goalscorers – against Norway – namely Jamie Ward and Conor Washington, who are injured and getting married respectively.
There could be more alterations in the Azerbaijan side too, with not just fresh faces but fresh allegiances. Besides Brazilian-born midfielder Almeida, who has just been naturalised at the age of 28, there could be Renat Dadashov, who only turned 18 last month; he is a German-born forward who has represented the Germany U17s.
The Northern Irish defence might include two men who are more than twice his age, two 37-year-olds to be precise, with Gareth McAuley expected to start after a thigh injury ruled him out of the recent friendly win over New Zealand, while Aaron Hughes could come in with Craig Cathcart absent.
Azerbaijan will hope to have a veteran of their own in their back-line; captain Rashad Sadygov missed the Belfast game due to injury but should add to his record 109 caps.
As big as the Baku buzz is around Almeida, it is hard to see how great an impact he can have on a team the Northern Irish demolished 4-0 in Belfast only seven months ago.
Azerbaijan were unbeaten at that point in their World Cup qualification campaign but shipped four that November night at Windsor Park to surrender second place. And a 4-1 loss to Germany in March has left them trailing in fourth spot in the group.
That scenario in the group is why O'Neill perceives Saturday's contest as one which has more riding on it for the hosts.
"I'm confident that having looked back at the game in Belfast, we certainly know the areas where we can exploit," he said.
"We scored four very good goals against Azerbaijan in Belfast against a team that hadn't been beaten. We come into this game in a good place, the team is in a good place.
"This is a bigger game for Azerbaijan - obviously they have lost the last two and conceded eight goals in doing so. In many ways I feel it's a bigger game for them and it's an opportunity for us to cement our position in second place in the group."