Belfast Telegraph

It's the end of the world if we fail against Azerbaijan

Taggart issues stark qualifying warning to Northern Ireland

By Graham Luney

Gerry Taggart has warned Northern Ireland that their World Cup dream will lie in tatters if they fail to beat Azerbaijan in the crunch qualifying clash at Windsor Park on November 11.

Michael O'Neill's men are third in Group C, three points behind their resurgent opponents who have only lost once against Northern Ireland in four meetings.

While O'Neill admits he is targeting seven points before the winter break and the showdown is an important test for his boys, he doesn't regard it as being the defining game of the campaign to make it to the finals in Russia 2018.

But Taggart, who won 51 caps, feels the stakes are very high, saying: "If Northern Ireland do not win this game, they can forget about qualifying for the World Cup 2018.

"It's an absolute must-win game and the biggest game of qualifying for us."

Aiming to progress to a major tournament for the first time, Azerbaijan have beaten Norway and San Marino and drew 0-0 away to the Czech Republic.

Former Leicester City favourite Taggart added: “They are the dark horses of the group and have sneaked into second spot with really impressive performances so far.

“We’re going to have a packed out house at our revamped stadium, so hopefully the players rise to it and get the result we need.”

With Germany hot favourites to seal automatic qualification from the group, Azerbaijan pose a real threat to Northern Ireland’s hopes of securing a runner-up and play-off spot.

O’Neill admits defeat would represent a huge blow to his side’s hopes but he refuses to accept it’s a “make or break” battle.

“We don’t want to go six points behind Azerbaijan and a defeat would put us in that position,” said O’Neill. “I don’t think it will be a defining game.

“We have been away to the Czech Republic and Germany so we have had the two most difficult games in the group which we have dealt with and could still be in a good place in the group, which is our aim.

“This game can give us a lot of momentum going into the second half of the campaign but it’s not a make or break game if it doesn’t go our way.

“It would give us a problem and we would have to make up ground elsewhere but we have already seen how the Czech Republic and Norway have dropped points.

“A lot of people talked about them being our biggest threats for a top two place but they dropped points to Azerbaijan, who will certainly feel they can take points off us as well. That is the challenge that we face.”

Belfast Telegraph


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