Northern Ireland can make set-piece strength count
McAuley great value to bag opening goal
World Cup qualifying Group C
Sky Sports 4, 5pm Saturday
November’s 4-0 thrashing of the Azeris in Belfast has persuaded many punters into thinking Michael O’Neill’s men are worth a bet.
But anyone who saw that game will be well aware that Azerbaijan were more than decent on the ball, and that ability to control possession in temperatures set to nudge the 30C mark could lead to a sticky night for the visitors.
The draw is understandably short. One or both teams not to score is a 4-6 chance while under 2.5 goals is 4-9.
All those prices are easy to understand given Azerbaijan’s lack of goals – three in five qualifiers – and Northern Ireland’s impressive defence which has kept four clean sheets in their last five outings.
It's possible that the teams will largely cancel each other out in humid conditions and it might be hard to find an edge. Even no goalscorer is no better than 5-1 and both sides have already clocked up a 0-0 draw earlier in the campaign.
Where Northern Ireland did have an advantage in Belfast was from set-plays – three of their four goals came from set-piece situations and it’s clearly an area that O’Neill pays attention to.
One man who is a serious threat in the opposition box is Gareth McAuley, the West Brom defender, who is the second-highest scorer in the squad with nine goals. That’s eight more than Josh Magennis, who is expected to lead the line.
In a match where betting opportunities don’t leap off the coupon, McAuley could be a great-value bet to score first.
G McAuley first goalscorer
1pt 33-1 Paddy Power
Brazilian midfielder Ricardo Almeida is set for a debut after being cleared by Fifa to play.
Gareth McAuley (thigh) is expected to be fit. Shane Ferguson returns from suspension but Conor Washington and Jamie Ward are out.
One or both teams have failed to score in each of Northern Ireland’s last 14 internationals.