Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill relishes expectation ahead of Azerbaijan clash

By Rory Dollard

The last time Michael O'Neill was asked to pass judgement on his Northern Ireland side, in the immediate aftermath of the dismal 3-2 defeat in Luxembourg, he could barely conceal his anger.

He branded the display "pathetic" and when invited to find a reason for the result he cited a lack of intelligence, intensity and leadership. "Take your pick," he offered.

That was only a month ago, but O'Neill has had enough time to put the Luxembourg lowlight into the perspective of a campaign that has seen a handful of positive displays and some encouragement from a new generation of internationals.

Speaking in Baku ahead of tonight's penultimate Group F qualifier against Azerbaijan, O'Neill was prompted to give his side a more sympathetic hearing.

"I'd be extremely disappointed to lose this game. I think we are a better team than Azerbaijan," he said.

"Looking at the group, Portugal and Russia were always going to be the two strongest teams and the favourites, but I think we are – at minimum – the fourth best team in the group. I think we are potentially better than Israel too but results, unfortunately, have not matched our level of performance."

Despite that bullishness, O'Neill has never hidden his frustration at his team's inability to put away lower-ranked opposition.

There has been much to cheer about the four games against the group's heavy hitters, not least the draw in Porto and the watershed win over Fabio Capello's Russia at Windsor Park in August, but a tally of two points from a possible nine against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan is well below expectation.

O'Neill is not sidetracked by the abstract – and often highly debatable – notion of the Fifa rankings, but he knows results must improve against the smaller nations if future campaigns are to be a success.

"I don't think it's a factor, where a team is ranked, that's not significant for me," he said.

"But in Euro 2016 third spot has potential qualification and at minimum a play-off.

"Beating the other teams around you will certainly help win the group within the group (without the top seeds) and what this group has showed us is you cannot be anywhere below your best to win a game at this level.

"It's been a harsh learning curve for this squad. We have to capitalise when we're on top, learn how to win games 1-0 and be more difficult to beat while still playing the way we want to play."

O'Neill has promised he will make alterations to his starting XI for tonight's match, but will not give a moment's thought to change for change's sake.

The temptation to tinker can often play a part at the back end of a group where qualification has already been settled, but O'Neill has yet to bank enough points to make that a viable option.

Instead, he insists his team-sheet will include only those he feels are in best condition to deliver the win.

That could be bad news for the likes of goalkeeper Roy Carroll, Daniel Lafferty and Oliver Norwood, all of whom have started less frequently than they might like at club level.

"Players aren't indispensible: performances keep you in the team," he said.

"From a tactical side we may tweak things and that will change the personnel as a result.

"If you look at the team v Russia, barring the likes of Steven Davis, whose season hadn't started yet, the other seven or eight had basically played the first three or four games for their club. They were really game ready.

"We have a situation now where, since then, some of their game time has been limited and inconsistent.

"These are important games and you want your team as game ready as possible. That's always a factor."

Aberdeen's Niall McGinn is among those to have played less than usual of late, though that is down to an ankle injury sustained in the Luxembourg defeat. He had been a doubt upon arrival in Baku but trained fully yesterday and is fit to play.

When Azerbaijan visited Belfast in the reverse fixture last November, Northern Ireland after only five minutes fell behind and then failed to convert an array of good chances throughout the 90 minutes.

A humbling defeat looked like being the result only for David Healy to salvage a point with a free-kick deep in injury-time.

When a local journalist put it to him that a generous referee had helped his side, O'Neill responded with a smile and added: "I think that's a very one-sided view of the fixture.

"If I remember properly an Azerbaijan player came on as a sub and got cramp after five minutes, which is unusual to say the least.

"I hope we have a strong referee on the night."

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