INTERNATIONAL: NI out to smash the new surprise package

Chris Brunt back in training and in contention to start after his spell on the sidelines. Pic: Presseye
Chris Brunt back in training and in contention to start after his spell on the sidelines. Pic: Presseye
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Northern Ireland know all about being the surprise package in a qualifying group - but can they stop one?

This time round, Michael O’Neill’s squad will be doing everything in their power to jam a spanner in the well-oiled works of a buoyant Azerbaijan.

Michael O'Neill signs autographs for Vauxhall competition winners at the National Stadium ahead of Friday nights World Cup Qualifier against Azerbaijan at the National Stadium at Windsor Park. Pic: Presseye

Michael O'Neill signs autographs for Vauxhall competition winners at the National Stadium ahead of Friday nights World Cup Qualifier against Azerbaijan at the National Stadium at Windsor Park. Pic: Presseye

Coming out of Pot Five, the side managed by former Real Madrid and Barcelona player Robert Prosinečki have little right to be sitting second in Group C.

Two years ago, Northern Ireland were in a similar position as they proved unexpected champions in their Euro 2016 qualifying group.

And now, like the annoying little brother looking to follow in their footsteps, Azerbaijan are attempting to pull off a similar feat.

Tonight, it’s up to Northern Ireland to stop them.

“I see similarities certainly in terms of where we came from and how our confidence grew and we’ve talked about that with the players - they are obviously a team that is capable of doing that as well,” O’Neill said.

“Our job is to create a road block and make it as difficult as possible and make sure we take the three points.

“The biggest thing in any campaign is how you react when the result goes against you, and we saw that in our qualification campaign - we had to play Finland and win having lost in Romania and we hope after Friday night Azerbaijan will face a similar problem in March.”

Tonight’s game at the National Stadium at Windsor Park (kick-off 7.45pm) is the meeting of two teams on the rise.

The last time the sides met in 2013, Northern Ireland were 90th in the World Rankings - now they’re 36th. And in Azerbaijan’s domestic front, they have two sides currently in the Europa League.

Sealing a spot at the World Cup would really add to that feel good factor - but, barring an unthinkable German collapse (which we can pretty much rule out), only one of these two teams can do it.

“The biggest thing is Azerbaijan have never qualified for a major tournament,” said O’Neill.

“It had been 30 years since we qualified. When you’re in that situation, you have to get out of the blocks and they’ve done that.

“They’ve managed to get momentum and with that will be belief and confidence that they can finish in a top-two position.”

Azerbaijan are currently in that coveted second spot, three points ahead of Northern Ireland.

“Maybe in the past Northern Ireland against Azerbaijan wouldn’t have caused much of a stir but the fact that the stadium will be sold out is a credit to the players and the expectation that we have created,” continued O’Neill. “That’s something that we want to hold on to.

“This is a group of players that have developed considerably. We’re still very dependent on our big players - Gareth (McAuley), Steven (Davis), Jonny (Evans), Chris (Brunt) but we’ve seen players grow like Ollie (Norwood), Corey (Evans), Shane Ferguson, Josh Magennis. These players have all grown considerably in stature in terms of playing international football.”

A Northern Irish victory would have the added bonus of getting a little bit of revenge on Azerbaijan for twice denying Michael O’Neill’s men victory in their last World Cup qualifying bid.

“In many ways, what happened in the past is a good thing for us,” said O’Neill. “It lets us know that we can’t be complacent in any shape or form, which we won’t be. We’re in a much better place as a group of players than what we were back then.”