Michael O'Neill warns Azerbaijan are a genuine rival for qualification
Michael O'Neill perceives Azerbaijan as a legitimate rival for Group C's runners-up spot and has warned Northern Ireland they cannot fall six points adrift of them in the World Cup qualification standings.
With holders Germany cruising towards the 2018 World Cup already, the Northern Irish, Azerbaijan, Norway and Czech Republic are vying for second and a possible route to Russia via the play-offs.
After three fixtures it is Northern Ireland's next opponents who have emerged with an early lead in that race with seven points and no goals conceded, though O'Neill's team will claim second should they emerge victorious at Windsor Park on Friday.
O'Neill does not believe any result will define the campaign at this stage, though he is wary of falling further behind an improving team who have never reached the finals of a major tournament.
"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," O'Neill said of his team's fortunes.
"I don't think it's a game which will be make or break, 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.
"Our aim is to put ourselves in a position of strength and three points will do 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."
Parallels can be drawn between Azerbaijan's start to this group and the way Northern Ireland, then also a pot-five team, opened up their qualification process for Euro 2016.
The early momentum engineered by O'Neill's team led to them securing a passage to France, though 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 tomorrow night 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."
QPR's Conor Washington may miss out for O'Neill's team having missed training on Wednesday and Thursday with a groin problem, while wide options Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas were ruled out earlier this week with injuries.
However, Chris Brunt's return, for the first time in 13 months in an international capacity after a knee issue, will give the country another dimension, particularly in terms of set-piece deliveries.
"We're not blessed with a multitude of left-sided players," O'Neill noted.
"It gives us options, both in midfield and the full-back area, where we've played him.
"We're looking at a player who plays at the Premier League level and that allows him to add something to our team and everything from quality of delivery, from general play and set pieces, is vital for us.
"He looks very fit and the quality's been very evident in the three or four days he's been here."