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Thursday 19 October 2017

Michael O'Neill is not focusing on Azerbaijan debutant Richard Almeida

Richard Almeida is set to make his Azerbaijan debut on Saturday
Richard Almeida is set to make his Azerbaijan debut on Saturday

Michael O'Neill will not focus Northern Ireland's gameplan around stopping Azerbaijan debutant Richard Almeida on Saturday night, admitting "the best Brazilians don't always play in Azerbaijan".

Azeris boss Robert Prosinecki could unleash Brazilian-born Qarabag playmaker Almeida for the first time after his naturalisation to represent his adopted country was approved by FIFA last week under the five-year residency rule.

There is understandably plenty of buzz about Almeida's expected bow at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium among the locals, yet O'Neill countered by stating his midfield trio of Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood and Chris Brunt will have seen foes of great ability plenty of times in the English domestic leagues.

"Regarding Richard Almeida, we have watched him play for his club, we know this will be his first game for Azerbaijan and we respect his quality as a player," O'Neill said.

"But tomorrow night he will play against three midfielder players who play in the English Premier League so they play against Brazilians, Argentinians, Spanish, Italians. I think the best Brazilians don't always play in Azerbaijan."

As big as the Baku buzz is around Almeida, it is hard to see how great an impact he can have on a team the Northern Irish demolished 4-0 in Belfast only seven months ago.

Azerbaijan were unbeaten at that point in their World Cup qualification campaign but shipped four that November night at Windsor Park to surrender second place. And a 4-1 loss to Germany in March has left them behind the world champions, this weekend's opponents and the Czech Republic.

That scenario in the group is why O'Neill perceives Saturday's contest as one which has more riding on it for the hosts.

"I'm confident that having looked back at the game in Belfast, we certainly know the areas where we can exploit," the Northern Ireland boss said.

"We scored four very good goals against Azerbaijan in Belfast against a team that hadn't been beaten. We come into this game in a good place, the team is in a good place.

"This is a bigger game for Azerbaijan, obviously they have lost the last two and conceded eight goals in doing so. In many ways I feel it's a bigger game for them and it's an opportunity for us to cement our position in second place in the group."

Baku, almost 2,700 miles away from Belfast, has not been a happy hunting ground for the Northern Irish.

They have failed to score in each of their previous two visits, the first of which occurred in 2004 when World Cup winner Carlos Alberto provided a withering post-match assessment of them, and the second in 2013 when they lost 2-0 a month after another embarrassing loss in Luxembourg.

O'Neill's side have lost just two of their 16 qualifiers since and skipper Steven Davis, also captain for that 2014 World Cup qualifier, admits the difference between this team and that is chalk and cheese.

"Looking back through that whole campaign, it was a massive learning experience for us all," Davis said.

"At the time we spoke about the performances being good and not having that mentality to deal with the setbacks.

"We were disappointed to lose here last time, we created opportunities but we weren't clinical enough. But from where we were at then to where we are now, there's obviously a massive difference - the whole mentality in the group's changed; we're in a much better place and want to continue the run we're on at the minute."

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