Baku To The Future: Northern Ireland aim to use Azerbaijan fixture as springboard to success in hunt for World Cup qualification

Northern Ireland

Michael O’Neill’s squad make the journey to the Land of Fire for Saturday’s fixture as they look to cement their position as 2nd in Group C of FIFA World Cup Qualification.

Northern Ireland are without a raft of senior players as Craig Cathcart joins Paddy McNair, Corry Evans, Chris Baird, Jamie Ward and Luke McCullough on the missing list. Conor Washington is another absent name as he misses the call up due to his own wedding. O’Neill will be buoyed by the expected return of defensive Goliath turned goal scoring supremo Gareth McAuley.

Northern Ireland’s 1-0 victory over New Zealand last week may not have been the most challenging 90 minutes they’ll play but there were many positives to take from the game. Tom Flanagan made an assured debut in defence, looking confident from the outset. There was a debut also for 23-year-old Shay McCartan who looked bright after coming off the bench, troubling the New Zealand defence a few times with his pace and direct movement.

The big talking point of the game was undoubtedly the partnership of Liam Boyce and Josh Magennis in attack. Many have felt that the two, Boyce in particular, have not yet been given enough of a chance to show their merit. Boyce grasped the opportunity as he struck well in the first half for Northern Ireland’s only goal of the game. The 2016-17 Scottish Premiership top goalscorer looked intent on showing O’Neill why he was wrong to omit him from the Euro 2016 squad selection.

Despite all of this it is hard to imagine that O’Neill will call upon anyone other than Kyle Lafferty to lead the line against Azerbaijan. The much-travelled Fermanagh man is a free agent after a less than successful spell at Norwich City and, as luck would have it, one of the touted potential destinations for Lafferty is none other than FK Qarabag of Azerbaijan.

A win for O’Neill’s side will keep Northern Ireland in that prime position for a playoff place as we enter the home straight of this qualifying series. When Azerbaijan visited Belfast in November they were blown away in a comprehensive 4-0 victory for the home side. However, the stats may not be in the Green and White Army’s favour as NI have only managed one win in their last five away qualifying matches.

A draw would not be a disaster as Northern Ireland look to keep the Czech Republic at arm’s length in this group before Karol Jarolim’s side come to Windsor Park in September.

As the saying goes – we’ll take this one game at a time. All eyes on the Land of Fire as Michael O’Neill continues to fan the flames of hope.