Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland can send out warning with a win in Azerbaijan, says Lafferty


By Steven Beacom

Kyle Lafferty believes Northern Ireland can send out a 'massive statement' to their World Cup group rivals by defeating Azerbaijan in Baku on June 10.

The striker, looking for a new club after leaving Norwich City, adds that Northern Ireland are no longer a side who are a soft touch when they are favourites to win crucial qualifying games, as will be the case in Baku.

Michael O'Neill's  men will enter the match against Azerbaijan aiming to cement their second place position in Group C, knowing victory will take them a huge step closer to nailing down the runners-up spot behind World champions Germany and securing a play-off for the finals in Russia.

Midway through the campaign, Northern Ireland are five points adrift of leaders Germany but two points clear of the Czech Republic, three ahead of Azerbaijan and seven in front of Norway.

In the past, Northern Ireland have come up short when playing sides like Azerbaijan, such as in O'Neill's first campaign as manager. Back then Azerbaijan took four points out of six versus Northern Ireland. Incredibly, little Luxembourg did the same.

But everything changed in the Euro 2016 qualifiers when Northern Ireland dominated fixtures they were expected to win. After defeating both Azerbaijan and San Marino 4-0 at home in the current campaign, Lafferty is convinced that run will continue.

"We can now play under pressure as favourites and win and we can also play well when we are up against it. We can win ugly if necessary and are also capable of putting in top performances," said Lafferty, who is part of a training panel in Manchester preparing for the Azerbaijan clash and next Friday's friendly at home to New Zealand.

"Down the years, lots of Northern Ireland sides have struggled when they have been expected to win, but we have shown already against San Marino, Azerbaijan and even Norway that we have the ability and character to do that.

"The Azerbaijan game away is a huge match for us. We have made a strong start to the group and I believe we can kick on. If we go and get a victory over Azerbaijan, that sends out a massive statement to the rest of the teams. That's what we want to do."

Lafferty, who has netted 20 times at international level, is the top scorer in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers for Northern Ireland with three goals despite only starting twice in five games.

He added: "The next three games are massively important, beginning with Azerbaijan, then San Marino and the Czech Republic. If we pick up the wins we believe we can achieve we'll be in a really strong position to qualify for the play-offs.

"Over two legs, with one at Windsor Park and our fans behind us, we would really fancy that."

Lafferty has not been the first choice forward for O'Neill in this qualifying campaign, though he remains Northern Ireland's top scorer in the group and is hoping to get the nod against Azerbaijan in the absence of QPR's Conor Washington.

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