Belfast Telegraph

Azer game will not make or break us but it would help, says Michael O'Neill

By Laure James

Emerging as the outside bet of Group C, Azerbaijan visit Belfast on Friday week seeking to add a further three points to their impressive tally of seven from three games.

Michael O'Neill is not, however, surprised by their relative dominance and knows a win is needed to match Robert Prosinecki's side on points.

"We are looking at a country which has invested very heavily in football and the fact Baku is one of the venues for the 2020 finals tells us that," he said.

"The improvement in their domestic teams and getting to the latter stages for qualification for the Champions League and now having two teams in the Europa League, they've consistently gone out of their country to find coaches.

"It was Berti Vogts in the past, now it's Robert Prosinecki, so they're very ambitious in terms of a country and where they want their country to go, so we will have to be at our best to beat them."

O'Neill added: "A win next week would put us in a good place.

"That has to be our aim, as this game can give us a lot of momentum going into the second half of the campaign, but it'll not be a defining game, it wouldn't be make or break if it didn't go our way.

"It would give us a problem and we'd have to make up ground and would need to make it up elsewhere, but we've already seen the Czech Republic and Norway drop points.

"We've said they would be our biggest threats when competing for second place, but now we see a situation where they've both dropped points to our next opponents.

"Azerbaijan will strongly fancy themselves to finish in a top two position also, so that will be the challenge we face."

With a start comparable to Northern Ireland's confident early run in the European Championship qualifiers, O'Neill is familiar with how high self-belief will be in the Azerbaijan camp.

"We were a pot five team in France for the qualifiers for Euro 2016, but whether you are pot four or pot five, I don't think there's a lot of difference. For instance we are pot three now, but I don't think the group's any easier because we are pot three.

"They have played very, very deep in the games we've watched them both home and away, and present a much greater threat on the counter-attack than the likes of San Marino did. They're much better defensively as they've kept three clean sheets.

"We will have to be patient in this one which will be tense and tight and very little in it."

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