Following last month’s heroic yet ultimately heartbreaking 1-1 draw with Portugal in Lisbon, Northern Ireland now face a must win qualifier against Azerbaijan in Belfast on Wednesday (kick-off 7:45pm) if the Green and White Army are to retain any realistic hope of reaching Brazil.
Having lost 2-0 away to Russia in their opening qualifier and then being hit by a late sucker punch against Luxembourg, it looked as if the North’s chances of reaching football’s greatest stage for the first time in 28 years had vanished after just two games.
Then came that wonderful performance against the Portuguese in Lisbon. Having withstood everything that Ronaldo (on the occasion of his 100th cap) and co. could throw at them, and unluckily coming away with only a draw – the prospect of the North qualifying are receding and will be virtually non-existent should they fail to beat Group F’s second worst side.
The Azerbaijanis are difficult to beat at home – they held second placed Israel to a 1-1 draw in Baku, but on their travels they are a much weaker proposition.
Last time out though, Russia only beat the side managed by Germany’s 1996 European Championship winning head coach Berti Vogts in Moscow by a single goal scored five minutes from time.
Northern Ireland have lost four players from their squad ahead of the Windsor Park clash. Manchester United’s Johnny Evans, Rangers’ Andy Little and Hull’s Alex Bruce have all cried off with groin, foot and knee problems respectively.
Peterborough’s Grant McCann has withdrawn from the party because his wife is due to give birth.
The loss of influential centre-half Evans will be most keenly felt and North’s manager Michael O’Neill has responded to the withdrawals by calling up uncapped Liverpool teenager Ryan McLaughlin and Burnley’s Danny Lafferty to the squad.
Ones to watch:
Northern Ireland – Kyle Lafferty
Unlike the game against the Portuguese, Northern Ireland can expect to play the majority of this game on the front foot. Azerbaijan are a tough tackling physical outfit however and chances will be at a premium, meaning the Rangers’ man will need to find the net when a clear cut chance does come his way because a goal or two from this man could well be the difference between winning and not winning.
Azerbaijan – Ruslan Abışhov
The tall defender likes to make runs from deep and join the attack. He has scored Azerbaijan’s only goal of this qualification campaign, when he planted a low 25 yard pile driver into the corner of the Israeli net to secure a 1-1 draw against the side currently sitting second in the group. With 30 caps and a handful goals for the national team, he is, at 25 years old, one of the most experienced members of the side ranked 170th in the world.
This game looks set to be tight and hard fought, but if Northern Ireland can match their performance in Lisbon, then they should have enough to win by the odd goal.
Northern Ireland (4-4-1-1): Carroll; Hughes (C), McGivern, McAuley, Ferguson; McGinn, Baird, Davis, Brunt; Shiels; Kyle Lafferty.
Azerbaijan (4-4-2): Arhayev; Shukurov, Abışhov, Medvedev, Levin; Chertoganov, Gokdemir, Javadov, Ozkara; Subashic, Nadirov.