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O'Neill aims to build winning mentality in Azerbaijan

NORTHERN IRELAND manager Michael O'Neill will make changes for his side's World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan but insists he is not considering experimentation for its own sake.

The prospect of a place in Rio next year disappeared a long time ago, meaning O'Neill could use this evening's match in Baku and the trip to Israel in four days as a chance to look at his options and hand peripheral players a chance to stake their claim.

But any chance of that probably died in Luxembourg last month when a chastening 3-2 defeat left the side with some serious making up to do.

Positive results over the next week, combined with favourable ones elsewhere, might help Northern Ireland to avoid slipping into pot five for the Euro 2016 draw, meaning O'Neill must go with his strongest side at the Bakcell Arena.

That does not mean he will spare the axe, though, as he looks to fill his side with individuals who have been regulars at club level. The likes of Roy Carroll, Daniel Lafferty and Oliver Norwood have played less in recent weeks and may pay with their places.

"We have to build a mentality to win games and the only way to do that is by winning, so we can't afford to use these matches to experiment in that manner," O'Neill said.

It would be nice to give the less experienced players some game time because they will benefit from that in the future but the imperative is to pick a side we think can win the game. That's what we will do.

"But there are a number of things to consider. Players aren't indispensable – performances keep you in the team.

"If you look at the team we played against Russia (in August), apart from the lads whose season hadn't started yet, the other seven or eight had basically played the first three or four games for their club. Since then some of their game time has been limited and inconsistent.

"These are important games and you want your team as game ready as possible. That is always a factor."

Aberdeen forward Niall McGinn is another who has appeared less frequently in recent weeks, but that is due to an ankle problem sustained in the Luxembourg match.

He was a slight doubt when the team landed in Azerbaijan but is back in contention after proving his fitness.