Belfast Telegraph

McGovern insists O'Neill has strength in depth to cover for the absentees

By Paul Ferguson in Baku

Goalkeeper Michael McGovern is unconcerned by the fact Northern Ireland are missing eight players from the squad that travelled to France for the Euro 2016 finals ahead of tomorrow night's World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan in Baku.

Versatile defender Chris Baird has retired, Paddy McNair, Corry Evans, Will Grigg, Jamie Ward, Craig Cathcart and Luke McCullough are all out injured while Conor Washington is unavailable as he is getting married.

But McGovern believes manager Michael O'Neill has adequate cover in all departments and insists this a big chance for certain players to stake a real claim for regular selection.

The Norwich City stopper points to the fact that he only came to the fore in the Northern Ireland team after the half-way point in the Euro 2016 qualifying.

He took advantage of Roy Carroll taking ill ahead of the scoreless draw with Romania in June 2015 and never relinquished the shirt.

The native from Enniskillen says: "It's an opportunity for others coming in. I've been in that position before when you're on the sidelines waiting for an opportunity to play and you try to grasp it.

"We are still going to field a very strong team on Saturday."

One of those players who will be given another opportunity to shine is former Cliftonville hitman Liam Boyce.

After his fantastic first international goal last week against New Zealand, Boyce, Scottish football's most lethal predator, will be a man the Azerbaijan defence fear.

"He's been fantastic," added McGovern of the Ross County sharpshooter, who netted 23 goals in the Scottish Premiership last season.

"He's fitter than he was a year ago and he has really progressed, which is great to see.

"Not being picked for the Euros was a big setback but he's shown great character to bounce back and be the top scorer in Scotland.

"Ross County maybe haven't done as well as they would have liked but it's a great testament to him, especially when you look at the Celtic team and the calibre of players they have and Brendan Rodgers really has them firing, so it is a fantastic achievement."

McGovern has been well protected by his defence during this World Cup qualifying campaign and indeed the only goals Northern Ireland have conceded have been against world champions Germany during the 2-0 defeat last October in Hannover.

While Azerbaijan enjoyed plenty of possession in Belfast, despite the 4-0 defeat, McGovern wasn't overly tested and thinks the home team will again have plenty of the ball, but Northern Ireland aren't overly concerned by that and expect to hit them on the break and capitalise from set pieces.

McGovern concedes: "They are the home team so the emphasis will be on them to control the ball and close us down more than they did in Belfast.

"Being at home they will feel they can do that, but even in Belfast they had more possession than us but we won the game 4-0.

"We don't often have the most possession but we do know how we can be effective and we have proven that already."

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