Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland can strike it hot in Baku, says upbeat Michael O'Neill

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill is confident his Northern Ireland side can find the goals in Azerbaijan next month to keep their World Cup qualifying bid on track.

O'Neill is without several strikers for the battle in Baku on June 10 as Conor Washington is getting married while Jamie Ward and Will Grigg are injured.

Kyle Lafferty has been included in the squad for the match against New Zealand at Windsor Park on Friday and the trip to Azerbaijan but he has left Norwich City after being been starved of competitive action.

Accrington Stanley forward Shay McCartan is handed a first call-up, while Liam Boyce and Josh Magennis are expected to play key roles in both matches.

"I have to be confident, it's as simple as that," said the Northern Ireland boss. "I believe there are goals in the team.

"We've Josh and Liam who are capable of scoring, while young Shay is in for experience, but if we had to put him on the pitch I'm sure he wouldn't let us down.

"We have goals from other parts of the team.

"We are strong from set pieces and Gareth McAuley is a major threat for us. We can't pull a striker out of a hat but we have enough to win the game."

O’Neill added: “The opportunity exists, particularly for Liam who is coming in on the back of his great season and I’ve no doubt that if he’s given the chance he will take it.”

Gareth McAuley has been included in the squad despite receiving treatment for a thigh injury and O’Neill is hopeful the West Brom ace (below) will make it to Baku.

“There is a concern regarding Gareth McAuley but we expect him to be fit,” added O’Neill.

“He won’t be involved against New Zealand, he will remain with his club until later in the week. The international window doesn’t officially open until June 4 and we understand the club holding the player, he will be well looked after but he missed the end of the season.

“He was confident he would be fine and the club were just making sure he is fine.

“It’s a similar situation with Craig Cathcart and he is continuing his treatment and rehabilitation with Watford. Again, he is optimistic he will be fine as well.

“There are concerns but we will know later in the week when the lads come in.”

O’Neill has named Southend’s Adam Thompson and Burton Albion’s Tom Flanagan in the 25-man squad. Thompson could add to his two caps as he returns to the squad after a six-year absence while Flanagan is uncapped.

But it’s in attack where O’Neill has a headache with Washington and Ward, who scored Northern Ireland’s goals in their 2-0 qualifier win over Norway in March, unavailable.

“Conor and Jamie started the game against Norway and both played very well,” added O’Neill.

“Jamie suffered a calf injury in the last game of the season with Forest. It was very sore and there was no way he was going to recover in time.

“Conor is getting married and it was something he had organised long before he was a Northern Ireland international. He was only really in the squad from March of last year leading into the Euros. Unfortunately he’s not available to us.

“We saw Josh’s (Magennis) impact in the game against Azerbaijan here in Belfast, he was unplayable that night. He has had a good season and been a little unfortunate with injury.

“He maybe finished with 10 goals but he gives you so much more. I always like having him in the squad because he gives you options, you can play him through the middle and on the right.”

McCartan, a former Down minor gaelic footballer and former Northern Ireland Under-21s international, was thrilled with his call-up.

“It will be a great experience,” said the Newry man. “The friendly is at Windsor Park in Belfast where I haven’t played since I was around nine and then to be involved in a World Cup qualifier is special. I never expected to get this far being a League Two player but it just goes to show.

“There is a chance I could get some game time, you never know, so I am just really happy. I don’t mind that my summer is not for resting!”

O’Neill’s side are second in Group C, five points behind leaders Germany, but two ahead of the third-placed Czech Republic.

And Azerbaijan will go level on points with O’Neill’s side if they can win next month.

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