Saturday 20 January 2018

Michael O'Neill backs Northern Ireland not to bake in Baku

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland visit baking Baku this weekend
Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland visit baking Baku this weekend

Michael O'Neill is braced for a physical examination of his Northern Ireland team this weekend when they face Azerbaijan in conditions touching 30 degrees.

The Northern Irish boss believes whoever handles the Baku heat best could emerge victorious in a World Cup qualifier where the visitors will look to hang on to second place in Group C.

Temperatures in the Azerbaijani capital are set to rise above 30 degrees Celsius on Saturday, and it is only forecast to have cooled a little by the time O'Neill's side kick-off at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium in the evening.

Northern Ireland have been preparing for such a gruelling assignment by training in the south of Turkey this week and O'Neill admits the humidity will be at the forefront of his mind when it comes to team selection.

"It's the purpose of why we are here, as well as to limit the travel at the back end of the week," O'Neill said from Turkey.

"The last two days have been particularly hot so we have been training in that type of heat since Monday. In the evenings it's been slightly cooler which is more realistic - we've been training at the equivalent of kick-off time in Baku. It has still been warm though it's not sunny, so the players have had good preparation in relation to getting acclimatised.

"Hopefully it's not a huge factor on the night, (but) I think it's something we have to be mindful in terms of how we set up the team and also selection wise, it will be a game that I think possibly the physical nature of the game could be the most determining factor rather than anything else in the game."

O'Neill will be without eight of the 20 outfield players he had at his disposal in the Euros at this time last year through a combination of retirement, injury and, in Conor Washington's case, because he is at his wedding.

One man who O'Neill should be able to call upon is 37-year-old West Brom defender Gareth McAuley, who was absent for the New Zealand friendly last Friday due to an injury which saw him miss his club's final two fixtures.

McAuley spent last week getting treatment with the Baggies but returned to O'Neill's fold for the flight to Turkey on Saturday, and his manager is confident one of those who scored in the 4-0 win over the Azeris in Belfast last November will feature in Baku.

"Gareth is fine," O'Neill added.

"We have tailored his training a little bit. He hasn't done all the sessions. Obviously we have to manage him given the season he's had and the recent injury. He is fine and we aren't too concerned about his fitness for Saturday."

Press Association

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