MICHAEL O’Neill believes Northern Ireland’s heroics in Portugal will become redundant if they fail to put Azerbaijan to the sword next week.
O’Neill’s men defied the odds and predictions of pundits and their own fans by earning a deserved 1-1 draw against Cristiano Ronaldo and company in Oporto.
It was a seismic shift for Northern Ireland, who until last month’s stellar showing had only recorded a solitary point from opening qualifiers against Russia and Luxembourg respectively.
The result in Portugal has instilled some belief in both the players and the supporters who have had little to cheer about in recent times.
But for O’Neill, the onus is on his squad to back up their jaw-dropping antics with victory against Azerbaijan next week.
“A lot has been made of the Portugal result, but it hasn’t changed how I go about doing the job,” O’Neill said.
“Portugal was great, and the fact we came away with a sense of disappointment with only getting a draw is a positive.
“But the reality is that the benefit of Portugal will only be reinforced if we win at home against Azerbaijan – simple as that.
“I am looking forward to the game and I think a result like the Portugal one can instil confidence and belief and we have to build on that.
“We have the opportunity to do that against Azerbaijan.”
O’Neill named a 24-man squad on Monday for their latest Group F test.
West Bromwich Albion defender Gareth McAuley returns from suspension while Baggies teammate Chris Brunt is also included after missing last month’s draw with Portugal due to injury.
Newcastle United star Shane Ferguson also returns from injury with Derby County striker Jamie Ward having recovered from a hamstring problem.
Rangers striker Andrew Little also gets the nod after returning to full fitness.
Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Lee Camp and Burnley striker Martin Paterson are once again unavailable for selection.
N IRELAND SQUAD
GOALKEEPERS: Roy Carroll (Olympiakos), Alan Mannus (St Johnstone), Michael McGovern (Falkirk).
DEFENDERS: Aaron Hughes (Fulham), Ryan McGivern (Man City), Jonny Evans (Man Utd), Craig Cathcart (Blackpool), Gareth McAuley (West Brom), Alex Bruce (Hull City).
MIDFIELDERS: Chris Baird (Fulham), Steven Davis (Southampton), Oliver Norwood (Huddersfield Town), Corry Evans (Hull City), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Pat McCourt (Celtic), Chris Brunt (West Brom), Shane Ferguson (Newcastle Utd), Grant McCann (Peterborough Utd).
STRIKERS: David Healy (Bury), Dean Shiels (Rangers), Kyle Lafferty (FC Sion), Will Grigg (Walsall), Jamie Ward (Derby County), Andrew Little (Rangers)