WILLIE Duncan (@Willie_Duncan) looks to maintain his excellent form as he previews Northern Ireland’s clash with Azerbaijan.
Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan | Friday 19:45 | Sky Sports 1
If you had offered Michael O’Neill and Northern Ireland a return of four points from their first three World Cup 2018 qualification fixtures, I suspect that they might well have settled for that.
There has been a routine home win against San Marino, a routine away defeat against world champions Germany and what could yet prove to be a precious point, procured in Prague against Czech Republic in the opening game of the group.
If the Green and White Army are to remain firmly on course for World Cup 2018, however, there’s no doubt at all that they simply must pick up full points from their home match against Azerbaijan on Saturday night.
Azerbaijan no threat on foreign soil
The visitors have been something of a surprise in the section so far, picking up seven points from their first three games, but Robert Prosinecki’s side are rarely a threat away from home and I expect them to struggle at Windsor Park.
Azerbaijan have managed just five goals in their last 20 World Cup qualifiers on the road and, despite boasting a five-match unbeaten run on their travels in this competition, four draws (including a 1-1 draw against the old, flaky Northern Ireland in 2012) and a 1-0 win against San Marino is hardly anything to write home about.
Unspectacular yet stoic Northern Ireland deserve respect
One concern about Northern Ireland is that even though O’Neill’s side is significantly stronger – and more confident – than the team that settled for a share of the spoils in this fixture four years ago, the goals still tend not to flow easily for the boys from Belfast.
Indeed, Northern Ireland have failed to find the net in six of their last eight games and three of their four goals against San Marino came in the latter stages as the ten-man minnows ran out of steam.
Northern Ireland’s defensive discipline, however, is admirable; in their last 10 games, the Green and White Army have conceded just five goals – three from two meetings with the Germans, one against Poland and an own goal against Wales.
With that in mind – and given that there have been fewer than three goals scored in six of Azerbaijan’s last seven games, it’s tempting to put up the 8/15 quote for no more than two goals to be scored here.
However, I’m backing the boys from Belfast to put in another solid shift and, instead, it is the 4/5 quote from Bet Stars for Michael O’Neill’s men to keep a fifth successive home clean sheet that appeals to me.
Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan – Northern Ireland to keep a clean sheet (4/5 Paddy Power)