FOOTBALL: Aaron Hughes hails Northern Ireland’s improved squad depth

Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes
Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes

Aaron Hughes could earn his 106th cap for his country on Saturday when Northern Ireland face Azerbaijan in a World Cup qualifier.

Hughes has prolonged his playing career in Scotland - after extending his short-term deal with Hearts - following spells in Australia and India with a view to helping his country reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

An injury to Craig Cathcart means Hughes could add to his growing cap tally in the crucial Pool C game in Baku.

And the veteran defender is confident Michael O’Neill’s squad can overcome a casualty list that features eight players from their Euro 2016 squad.

“We’ve got a bit more depth and lads who are playing regular at their clubs - that’s probably what’s changed over the last few years,” the 37-year-old added.

“That’s a big thing to do and it’s something Michael always spoke about. We’ve no fears in that respect of having to chop and change or bring lads in when lads drop out.”

Northern Ireland lie second in the group, five points behind Germany and two ahead of the Czech Republic, with Azerbaijan a further point behind.

Hughes has been happy with the way the first half of the World Cup qualifying campaign has gone.

“It’s as good as it can be and to have done it off the back of a Euro campaign to be consistent and not fall away has been impressive,” he said.

“We are in with a realistic chance of making the play-offs.

“Germany will probably win the group but to be pushing to be in the play-offs and to have a chance in a two legged game to go to the World Cup is fantastic.

Its another reason I’m sat here. Why walk away from something like that?”

Hughes accept the team has learned a lot from how to get results with only a loss to Germany from their five games to date, which includes drawing with the Czechs.

“It’s a pretty consistent group of players who have been around for a while and know what’s expected from them in terms of our levels in training to games, be it tactics, level of performances and work-rate.

“We know what gets us results and we know our strengths.

“We know the things that are less likely to get us results.

“The last campaign proved that where we had banana skin games and we got through them and to do it in this campaign so far we have backed it up.”

Hughes expects Azerbaijan to be a difficult proposition.

I missed the last one but was there back in 2005 when we drew 0-0,” he recalled.

“I remembered that their manager then (Carlos Alberto) wasn’t very nice about our team.

“It will be tough conditions and they will be difficult to play against. We won’t underestimate the opposition.

“As you go through the campaign each game becomes more important than the last regardless of the opposition and you know what is at stake and the rewards you have if you get the win,” Hughes added.