O'Neill lifts the pressure from NI's shoulders
Bullish manager Michael O'Neill flew into Baku yesterday from Northern Ireland's training base in Antalya, Turkey and immediately attempted to deflect the pressure from his players ahead of his team's vitally important World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan tonight.
O'Neill, in the lead up to the game, had stated that he believed the match in the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium could be considered the toughest game of Northern Ireland's campaign - due to the time of year for the players, high temperatures and travel involved.
But he insisted, ahead of Northern Ireland's final preparation session before the game at the stadium named after the famous linesman who awarded England a controversial goal in the 1966 World Cup final, that this was a huge match for Azerbaijan as they attempt to stay in the hunt for qualification after losing their last two qualifiers, conceding four goals on each occasion.
Victory in Baku, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, would enable Northern Ireland to take a massive step towards securing second place in Group C, however defeat for Azerbaijan would take Robert Prosinecki's side out of the running for qualification.
O'Neill said: "This is a bigger game for Azerbaijan, obviously they have lost the last two and conceded eight goals in doing so. In many ways I feel it's a bigger game for them and it's an opportunity for us to cement our position in second place in the group.
"We know the Azerbaijan team very well and know where their strengths and weaknesses lie."
Northern Ireland will go into the match buoyed by the fact they inflicted a damaging 4-0 defeat on Azerbaijan last November at Windsor Park. Their prowess in the air and from set-pieces was the main difference and O'Neill believes his men must win the physical battle in Baku to earn the vital three points.
He conceded: "I think when you play away from home you have to adopt a cautious approach regardless of the opposition. We will approach the game with a game plan that we think can get us three points.
"I don't think it's a case of strategy in terms of how we'll play wide open. I think physically it will be very important to manage the physical side of the game and I think it will be more demanding physically than possibly tactical.
"I'm confident that having looked back at the game in Belfast, we certainly know the areas where we can exploit. We scored four very good goals against Azerbaijan in Belfast against a team that hadn't been beaten. We come into this game in a good place, the team is in a good place."
Northern Ireland had been concerned about the high temperatures in Baku leading into the match but following a week in Turkey and after settling into their base in the Azerbaijan capital, beside the home straight for next week's European Grand Prix, they were surprised by how pleasant it was with a nice breeze coming off the Caspian Sea.
O'Neill added: "The weather is lovely. We think the temperature is nice, not too hot. By kick-off the temperature will be suitable for us.
"The preparation in Turkey was excellent, we trained three times at kick-off time in Turkey. We were very fortunate that the previous week we had good weather in Northern Ireland that we don't get too often.
"We will have to manage the conditions but I don't think it will be a huge problem for our players."
It is anticipated that Northern Ireland will play a 4-3-3 formation and 4-5-1 when defending. Gareth McAuley, who has recovered from a knee injury picked up at the end of West Brom's season, will join Jonny Evans in the centre of defence with Conor McLaughlin and Shane Ferguson either side of them. Brighton's Ollie Norwood should act as the holding midfielder just behind skipper Steven Davis and Chris Brunt.
On the left flank, Stuart Dallas will operate ahead of Ferguson while Josh Magennis will play off Scotland's top striker Liam Boyce - who will be given the chance to fire Northern Ireland to further World Cup qualifying glory.
O'Neill's counterpart, Azerbaijan coach and former Croatian star Prosinecki, revealed last night his adopted Brazilian Richard Almeida will make his debut against Northern Ireland. But he was adamant the man from Sao Paulo is not the only player in the Azerbaijan team who could hurt Northern Ireland.
Prosinecki said: "I hope Northern Ireland will be afraid of Almeida because he is one of the players that will play. I can't say they wouldn't be afraid of not only Almeida because we will have 10 other players in our team. Also we have the support of our fans. Yes I know that fans from Northern Ireland are vocal but we believe in our fans.
"In the match I may start one forward, maybe two, but I believe in all my 11 players on the field and they will show a performance. Maybe I will change the tactics during the match, I couldn't say now. I will watch the game and maybe change the tactics."
The Azeris are still smarting from a 4-0 loss to Northern Ireland in November, which was followed by a 4-1 defeat in March to Germany to leave Azerbaijan playing catch-up in the race for second in Group C.
"We haven't forgotten that loss in Belfast," Prosinecki said.
"It will be difficult again for us tomorrow and I hope we can do our best to show a good game."