Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland can stand the heat in Azerbaijan, says Michael O'Neill

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill has backed his boys to handle the heat in Baku on Saturday and move a big step closer to the World Cup finals in Russia.

Temperatures are expected to hit 31 degrees for the 8pm kick-off in Azerbaijan (5pm in UK) and Northern Ireland players will have to battle the humid conditions as well as Robert Prosinecki's dangerous side.

But a training camp in Turkey this week has helped O'Neill's men acclimatise and the boss is confident cool heads will prevail as his side look to strengthen their grip on second place and a possible play-off showdown to make it to the 2018 finals.

If Northern Ireland can win on Saturday they will move six points clear of their opponents and also turn up the heat on Czech Republic who are two points behind O'Neill's side ahead of their trip to Norway in Group C.

"The purpose of why we are here in Turkey is to acclimatise and limit the travel," said O'Neill (right) who confirmed that Gareth McAuley will be fit for the game.

"We have been training in the heat and at kick-off time in Baku, it has been warm though not sunny and good preparation for the players. It's something we need to be mindful of in how we set up the team. The physical nature of the game could be the most determining factor than anything else.

"We have been good away from home, the structure of the team is good and we have enough experience in the group to deal with it. In a way there is more pressure on them as they have lost their last two games to ourselves and Germany and conceded eight goals in the two games having had a great start."

With Germany expected to cruise the group, the race for a play-off spot was always going to be fierce, but O’Neill feels that victory this weekend would inject huge confidence and self-belief into his side.

“This is a great opportunity for us to strengthen our position in second place,” he said while being interviewed yesterday by the media using Skype at Windsor Park in a new experiment set up by the Irish FA.

“There would be six points between ourselves and Azerbaijan if we win it, we will keep the gap with Norway and the Czech Republic have a big game in Oslo. If we can win the game we will be in a very strong position in relation to challenging for second spot and we could increase the distance between ourselves and the Czech Republic. With the Czechs to play Germany next in game seven, three points here would be vital.

“If the result doesn’t go our way the group will become tighter but we will still be in the mix along with others. That’s the downside to it but it wouldn’t be all doom and gloom.”

One player Northern Ireland will need to keep a close eye on is Brazilian Richard Almeida, the Qarabag midfielder who has been cleared by Fifa to fight for Azerbaijan.

“We know he’s a nationalised player, he’s done very well since moving to Qarabag,” said O’Neill. “His previous club was Gil Vicente in Portugal, he’s a left-footed midfield player who likes to play behind the game. Technology allows us to watch as many games on this lad as we wish to and see where he’s dangerous and his threat from set-pieces.

“He is a big name but he doesn’t play against Steven Davis, Chris Brunt and Oliver Norwood every week who are all Premier League midfield players. We will give him the respect he deserves but we shouldn’t get carried away with the fact he’s a Brazilian.”

If Northern Ireland want to make it to Russia they are going to have to pass tough assignments such as this one. Azerbaijan will be gunning for revenge after they were humbled 4-0 at Windsor Park but O’Neill trusts his men to rise to the occasion.

He added: “The main thing that we have to do is make sure we’re difficult to beat, which we always are away from home. From that platform we’ll obviously try and win the game.

“If we don’t win it and the game is drawn it’s far from a disaster but we’ll set out to try and win, as we did in Czech Republic. In that game we weren’t as good with the possession we had, the opportunities we had to counter we didn’t use them well.

“That’s something that we’ll have to do better.” Meanwhile, Windsor Park is among the stadiums under consideration by Uefa to host the 2019 Super Cup.

The governing body revealed seven grounds have lodged bids to stage the contest between the Champions League winners and the Europa League victors that year, with stadia in Albania, France, Israel, Kazakhstan, Poland and Turkey also vying for selection alongside Windsor Park.

A UEFA committee will reveal where the four games will be staged on September 21.

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