Jonny Evans has warned Northern Ireland another below-par performance against Azerbaijan will endanger their World Cup qualification bid.
The team ranked 88th in the world are the visitors to Belfast on Friday night, as they were four years ago, early in Michael O’Neill’s reign, when only a stoppage-time David Healy goal prevented a shock away victory.
Worse was to follow later in that World Cup qualification process when Azerbaijan claimed a 2-0 success in Baku, one month after O’Neill’s side had been beaten in Luxembourg during a period when Northern Ireland recorded only one win in 22 games.
Fortunes have certainly changed for the better since, for both nations, and three points at Windsor Park would put O’Neill’s team above Azerbaijan into second place in Group C as they aim to reach back-to-back finals.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” Evans reflected.
“The expectations on us as a team have risen dramatically and I do think for Azerbaijan as well.
“They’re sitting well in the group and I’m sure they will be pleased with how they’ve started.
“The last game against them at home, we equalised late on, (but) I think we were in control in that game.
“I know back then we were disappointed with the result. I think now it would be even more so and it would really derail our campaign if we were to perform like that again. It would be disappointing for us to perform like that.
“In terms of how we approach the game, we’re in a better mindset and we’ve got a much clearer plan going into the game of how we’re going to win.”
A victory would ensure the Northern Irish were directly behind Germany in the race for a possible play-off berth that Norway and Czech Republic are both also intent on securing.
With the next batch of games four months away, Evans appreciates having the knowledge his team are in second will make the festive period far more comfortable for those of a Northern Irish persuasion.
“That would be massive because you have such a big break now between international games,” he stated.
“I know it was very important in the last campaign. You don’t want to be away from the international scene for too long, looking at the group table and not being where you want to be because you start getting itchy feet then.
“We want to leave over the Christmas period and going into the next set of qualifiers in the New Year in a good position and feeling that we’re in with a great chance of qualifying again.”