The odds for Northern Ireland to get to Russia were pretty long at the start of the qualifiers, and things are now a lot harder after their predictable defeat in Germany last month.
Their only hope is to to do their best against the rivals for the second spot and hope for a place in the play-offs against one of the other best runners-up. But that looks a long way off, as Norway, the Czech Republic all appear to be around the same level at the moment.
But it’s worth remembering that the defeat in Hanover was the first for Northern Ireland in almost two years. It was also the first time the Green and White Army had conceded more than one goal in an international match since their defeat to Romania in November 2014.
You may not like how they get things done, but this is a team with a lot of international knowhow, and the smart money’s on the Green and White Army getting back in the winning habit on Friday.
Not So Negative
You can wager that Michael O’Neill will go looking for a win against Azerbaijan after trying and failing to shut up shop against the World Champions.
If Northern Ireland can take the points at Windsor Park they’ll go second in the group, which is more than enough incentive for O’Neill to start on the front foot.
Back Attackers to Return
So you can bet that a couple of the more creative players will return to the team. We’re expecting Stuart Dallas and Niall McGinn to start on the wings after both missed out against Germany.
And who knows, Will Grigg may be in the frame as he’s continued to score goals in a newly-promoted Wigan side, despite them struggling at the bottom of the Championship table.
He’s more prolific than current first pick Josh Magennis, but doesn’t boast the same pace and power as the Charlton man.
History Already Made
Normally considered cannon fodder in qualifying, Azerbaijan are shedding their old reputation in Group C at the moment. Last month they shocked Norway with a deserved win in Baku.
And they followed that up with an equally impressive away draw against the Czech Republic. Three matches in, and Azerbaijan are unbeaten.
You wouldn’t blame them for dreaming big, because their two wins so far are more than they’ve achieved in any other World Cup qualifying campaign to date.
Master at the Helm
If you’re in need of an inspirational figure for a coach, you can’t get much better than Robert Prosinečki.
The former Barcelona and Real Madrid player was one of the flair players of the 1990s and was in the team for Croatia’s best ever World Cup performance when they came 3rd in 1998.
Long Way to Go
But it would still take a bold punter to take on the bookies and back the “Milli” to travel to Windsor park and come away with anything. A glance of their squad and you’ll see there’s a shortage of experience, with nearly every player still based in Azerbaijan.
The most influential player is probably Dimitrij Nazarov, who is having a difficult time this season at Aue in the 2. Bundesliga. Northern Ireland is now famed for its stiff defence, and it’s hard to see them causing the Jonny Evans, MacAulay and co much trouble.
Northern Ireland vs Azerbaijan Prediction
Michael O’Neill has enough at his disposal to get past Azerbaijan pretty comfortably. Whether the visitors’ record so far is a sign of their improvement or just a coincidence, Northern Ireland have a habit of dealing with teams of their standard.
We can’t see anything other than a home win, and 2-0 looks a likely scoreline. But we’re intrigued to see if Prosinečki’s side is a flash in the pan or the real deal.
For some extra reading, have you ever wondered about the story behind UEFA’s international kit suppliers?