Belfast Telegraph

O'Neill eager to lift Northern Ireland fitness levels for New Zealand clash in Baku

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill has warned his Northern Ireland players not to expect a walk in the park in the clash with New Zealand at Windsor Park tomorrow night.

The match is of huge importance to O'Neill as his side gear up for the World Cup qualifier with Azerbaijan in Baku on June 10 but it also carries plenty of meaning for the White Caps, who are warming up for the Confederations Cup.

New Zealand's first Confederations Cup match is against Russia on June 17 in St Petersburg.

Their coach Anthony Hudson said: "I am excited and quietly optimistic about our chances in Russia.

"I feel that we go into this tournament in a really strong position."

For O'Neill, the game is all about his players sharpening their fitness and while some on the periphery of the starting XI will get an opportunity to impress, New Zealand, captained by Leeds United striker Chris Wood, will be a tough nut to crack.

"The game was taken because we didn't want to play too close to the game on June 10 and the Champions League final on Saturday influenced the date but we've got a tough game at our home ground," said the former Shamrock Rovers boss.

"They are preparing for the Confederations Cup so it's a big game for them and part of their preparations for a big tournament to be involved in, in Russia.

"This game is about preparation and fitness. You never want to lose but if you look at some of our players, the last game they played was the last weekend in April.

"We are expecting them to be fit to play a game on June 10.

"Our Championship players all finished on May 6 so it is about preparation for June 10 and the game being on the date it is was key to choosing this opposition.

"It's a different type of opposition as opposed to playing a Macedonia or whoever it may be so we are pleased to have the game and have it here."

Northern Ireland will travel to Azerbaijan aiming to cement their second-place position in Group C, knowing victory will take them a significant step closer to nailing down the runners-up spot behind World champions Germany and securing a play-off for the finals in Russia.

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