Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland must not take our eye off the ball against Azerbaijan, warns Michael O'Neill

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill has used the 'M word' quite a bit ahead of tonight's scrap with Azerbaijan and one glance at World Cup qualifying Group C explains why.

That word is 'momentum' and Northern Ireland are desperate to go into the long international break knowing they are second in the group and in a healthy position to strike for a runner-up spot behind Germany.

With Robert Prosinecki's side on a roll and dreaming of progressing to their first major tournament, O'Neill knows his side cannot take their eye off the ball for a second.

A defeat at Windsor Park (7.45pm) would see Northern Ireland fall six points behind Azerbaijan and with the next qualifier not until March at home to Norway there will be a lot of time to sweat about their World Cup ambitions.

O'Neill has faith in his players to deliver under pressure but he has attempted to lift the weight of expectation off their shoulders by insisting this isn't a "make or break" battle.

Some supporters, however, will view it as a must-win clash and the stakes are high with the need to win home games of paramount importance.

"It's very important first of all for us to take as many points as we can in the home games," O'Neill admitted.

"Seven points from four games, to have gone away to Czech Republic and Germany, would be a good return and will set us up nicely for the rest of the campaign.

"I don't think it's a game that will be make or break, there are still six games after that. Ourselves, Azerbaijan, Czech Republic and Norway, there's very little between us, the games have shown that.

"The aim is to put ourselves in a position of strength, and three points will do that. We don't want to be six points behind Azerbaijan. We have to stop their momentum from the first three games and it will be nice for us to be sitting second in the game.

"With one second best group team not making the play-offs it's a difficult situation, there's still so much football to be played.

"Our aim all along was to be in a top-two position, we expect that Germany are favourites to win the group and everyone will expect that to be the case.

"It's very difficult to control what happens in other groups. When you look at totals you will need, what you don't want is to finish second with a lower total. There are so many games to be played. We're just trying to build momentum that we got in the Euros. Seven after four will do that for us. We have a home game in March then return game in Azerbaijan - this game is important for momentum."

The heat may be on O'Neill's men tonight but the 47-year-old learned enough about the character and desire of his players during that amazing Euro 2016 adventure to keep the faith.

"I've no concerns," he added. "This is a group of players that have developed considerably in the last two and a half years.

"We're still dependent on big players and Chris (Brunt) is coming back in.

"We've seen players grow like Ollie (Norwood), Corry (Evans), Shane Ferguson, Josh Magennis, over the last two years they have grown considerably in stature in terms of international football.

"Maybe in the past Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan wouldn't have caused much of a stir but we're playing in front of a sold-out stadium and that is a credit to the players, the expectation level they've created.

"I have no fears in relation to how we will perform. We're aware of difficulty that they will set us. The players are well prepared, having seen them train this morning you always know and they've certainly got an edge to them."

Azerbaijan have yet to concede a goal in their campaign after shutting out Czech Republic, Norway and San Marino and O'Neill has been impressed by their fast start.

"I think it's pretty clear from the campaign they have had so far with the two good victories and not conceding, they've played a defensive structure, very deep in games we've watched and analysed," he said.

"It's worked for them. They are obviously a threat on the counter so we anticipate how they played and set-up against Czech Republic and Norway that it will be a similar approach here.

"They will come here initially to make sure they're not beaten and they will do that by being a threat on the counter-attack.

"Their strength has been defensively as a collective, in terms of how they defend as a team.

"Maybe not necessarily as individuals. They are well prepared, well organised, Robert Prosinecki has got them well drilled. It's not easy to do that, coach a team and get them to believe in that.

"They believe in what they are doing. We have seen areas that we can exploit there as well. There has been a familiarity with the Azerbaijan team, six players from Qarabag, two from Qabala, a real familiarity in their starting line-up has helped them have that cohesion in defence.

"Bu the biggest thing in any campaign is how you react, and we saw that in our qualification campaign for the Euros - we had to beat Finland having lost in Romania and we hope after Friday that Azerbaijan will have a similar problem in March."

  • N Ireland v Azerbaijan, World Cup Group C: Windsor Park, Tonight, 7.45pm

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