Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan: Let's end sweet 16 on a high note for fans, says Jonny Evans
Jonny Evans wants Northern Ireland to finish off an incredible year on a great high. After Michael O'Neill's side stormed into the last 16 of the Euro 2016 finals, Northern Ireland can tonight climb into the runners up spot in World Cup 2018 qualifying Group C with a victory over Azerbaijan at Windsor Park (7.45pm).
With the next qualifier against Norway in March, West Brom ace Evans feels it's crucial his side lead the chasing pack behind Germany.
"Being second in the group going into the break will be massive because you have such a big break now between international games and I know it was very important in the last campaign," he said.
“When you aren’t where you want to be you start getting itchy feet and we want to get through the Christmas period and New Year in a good position and in with a great chance of qualifying again.
“At your club you have games coming thick and fast but you don’t have that luxury at international level. Every game and every point counts.”
Striker Conor Washington is a doubt with a groin injury while striker Liam Boyce and midfielder Michael Duffy have been drafted into the squad.
Ross County player Boyce and Dundee man Duffy, on loan from Celtic, replace injured pair Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas, who withdrew from the game earlier this week.
Northern Ireland also face Croatia in a friendly at home on Tuesday night but tonight’s battle is the one that counts.
The road to Russia 2018 remains a treacherous one but a victory over Azerbaijan will rekindle hopes of a first World Cup Finals appearance in 30 years.
Azerbaijan’s promising start has taken a few observers by surprise but Evans doesn’t yet view tonight’s opponents as the biggest threat to securing a runner-up finish behind Germany.
“It is maybe a bit too early to say that,” said the former Manchester United favourite. “When the teams came out in the draw you looked at Czech Republic and Norway.
“They play each other and with Germany facing San Marino this game is a good opportunity to catch up with Azerbaijan.
“We don’t want to see a gap opening up at this stage and it feels like a big game already.”
Evans also welcomed his West Brom team-mate Chris Brunt’s return to the international stage, adding: “The onus has been put on Olly Norwood over the last year or so with his set-pieces.
“I think Michael (O’Neill) likes to have a left footer, a right footer, different options as it’s an area of the game we want to be particularly strong in.”