Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland pack a bigger punch now, warns Jonny Evans

By Graham Luney

It's fair to say that Jonny Evans owes Azerbaijan one. On a dark night in October, 2013 Northern Ireland were humbled by Azerbaijan in Baku, a 2-0 defeat which saw their World Cup qualifying campaign hit a new low, and the defender was sent off deep into injury-time.

But a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and the class of 2016 have a greater steel and resilience.

Yes, Michael O'Neill men were once given bloody noses by opponents like Azerbaijan and Luxembourg but the current squad has learned how to punch above its weight and deliver knockout blows.

Tonight's Group C World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park will be an intriguing battle between two much improved sides and although Northern Ireland have failed to win any of their four battles between the sides since 2004 there is a quiet confidence that O'Neill's well drilled machine can do the business.

Evans can certainly see the green shoots of recovery since that dismal occasion in 2013 - and that's his assessment of both camps.

"I think we have come a long way," said the 28-year-old.

"Michael (O'Neill) has spoken about how to deal with teams like that.

"I think they surprised us with how well organised they were out there.

"The expectations on us as a team have risen dramatically but also for Azerbaijan.

"They have done well in the group and I'm sure they will be pleased at how well they started.

"In the last home game we equalised late on through a great David Healy free-kick. I think we were in control of the game and back then we were disappointed.

"I think it would be even more disappointing and even derail our campaign if we were to perform like that again.

"We will have a better mindset this time with a much clearer plan about how we are going to achieve the best result for us.

"I think football in general on the international stage has improved a lot over the last five or six years.

"We have improved as have teams like Azerbaijan and teams are bridging the gap and becoming a lot more tactical.

"The fitness of players throughout the world is at a certain level and coaching has improved. Their coach (Robert Prosinecki) was a very good player in his day and he's got them well organised in a similar way that Michael has achieved with us."

Evans' West Brom team-mate Chris Brunt is back on the international stage after a serious knee injury ruled him out of the Euro 2016 finals and his Baggies buddy is loving the reunion.

"It's great to see him back," added Evans, who will win his 57th cap against Azerbaijan.

"I think he's surprised a few people at our club in how well he has adapted.

"He obviously has great technique and quality on the ball.

"I don't think he will ever lose that.

"After a few training sessions the manager (Tony Pulis) has thrown him straight back in. Everyone has great faith in him and I'm sure it will be the same with Northern Ireland.

"The one thing with Chris is he has a great left foot and even people from other clubs have said that Brunty's left foot is unbelievable.

"His delivery from set-pieces is excellent but he's also a very intelligent player and really composed under pressure.

"He has brought a real composure to our midfield at West Brom and been able to slow the same down.

"He has helped us string a few passes together and get up the pitch. We have appreciated that as a squad."

A home victory would catapult O'Neill's side into second spot in Group C and keep their World Cup mission firmly on track.

The huge incentive for Northern Ireland is to sit in that runner-up spot behind Germany going into the long international break before hostilities resume against Norway in March.

"Every game and every point counts," adds Evans. "And this is a big one."

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

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