Belfast Telegraph

Azerbaijan expect victory against Northern Ireland - anything less would be failure

By Roy Kitson

"To lose against Northern Ireland would be a disaster". That's the view from the Azerbaijan camp ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier with Northern Ireland in Baku.

Mahir Shukurov, Azerbaijan's 30-year-old defender, definitely did not pull any punches when talking about the game.

Shukurov, who plays with Azerbaijan league and cup winners Neftchi Baku, has history with Northern Ireland.

His second appearance for the national team was against Northern Ireland in a 0-0 draw almost exactly nine years and he was a late substitute in the return World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park when Lawrie Sanchez's side won 2-0.

Shukurov has played in eight of Azerbaijan's qualifiers this time around, ironically missing the 1-1 draw in Belfast last November when David Healy's late leveller spared Northern Ireland blushes.

Ahead of their double header with Russia and first Northern Ireland, Shukurov said: "We have been in intensive preparation for these matches and are working as hard as possible.

"The match against Northern Ireland is possibly the only one of the two games in which we have a realistic hope of taking the three points.

"I know that Northern Ireland are tough and determined opponents – and of course they defeated Russia in Belfast a couple of months ago – so it will be very difficult, but it is a game we simply have to win. The same Northern Ireland which beat Russia were defeated away to Luxembourg last month, and that means that we can and must do the same as Luxembourg.

"If we don't win on Friday, then we could finish bottom of the qualifying group. If we win, then we will likely finish fourth.

"We know that Northern Ireland like to attack from the flanks, but I think that we can cope with their players."

Azerbaijan midfielder Afran Ismailov is taking nothing for granted but said even a draw would be a failure.

"Despite the fact that we drew in Belfast, this score must not delude us into taking anything for granted. We must win at home.

"We have needlessly given away a lot of points in this competition and that has to end.

"We will be analysing Northern Ireland's recent matches on video, though we already know a lot about them after the game in Belfast. I'm not sure how we will line up, but I know that we will be pushing forward from the first whistle.

"A draw against Northern Ireland would be a failure. It will be a difficult game, but a defeat does not come into the question. We know that these are Berti Vogts' last two matches in charge of Azerbaijan, however we aren't playing for Berti Vogts, but for Azerbaijan."

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