Azerbaijan a World Cup rival for Northern Ireland - Michael O'Neill

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Manager Michael O'Neill has guided Northern Ireland to four points from their opening three World Cup qualifying fixtures
World Cup qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan
Venue: Windsor Park Date: Friday, 11 November Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Ulster; text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app

Azerbaijan are a serious threat to Northern Ireland's claim on a World Cup qualifying runners-up spot, says manager Michael O'Neill.

His team will go second in Group C with victory at Windsor Park on Friday.

World Cup champions Germany lead the way with Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Norway and the Czech Republic all vying for a play-off route to Russia 2018.

"Our aim is to put ourselves in a position of strength and three points will do that," O'Neill said.

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Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis concedes the game with Azerbaijan is 'very important' to his side's qualification hopes

Azerbaijan will be missing their captain and 104-cap international Rashad Sadygov.

The defender has been ruled out with a knee problem.

However after three fixtures the country has seven points and conceded no goals, and O'Neill is wary of falling further behind an improving team who have never reached the finals of a major tournament.

"I don't think it's a game which will be make or break," he said. "There are still six games after that.

"Ourselves, Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic and Norway, there's very little between us - the games have shown that.

"We wouldn't want to be six points behind Azerbaijan.

"We have to stop their momentum from the opening three games and it will be nice for us to be sitting second.

"To have seven points after four games - and to have gone away to the Czech Republic and Germany - is a good return and will set us up nicely for the second half of the campaign."

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Chris Brunt recently returned to action with West Bromwich Albion

Azerbaijan's start to this group is reminiscent of the way Northern Ireland, then also a fifth-ranked team, opened up their qualification process for Euro 2016.

The early momentum achieved by O'Neill's team carried them to France as group winners, although it was not all plain sailing, and he wants to give Robert Prosinecki's outfit their first bump in the road in Belfast.

"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 added.

"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."

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