Last Updated: 07/06/17 11:30pm
Chris Brunt knows Northern Ireland no longer carry the element of surprise as they return to the Azerbaijani city where they experienced one of their darkest days.
Seven months ago Michael O’Neill’s side routed the then-unbeaten Azeris 4-0 at Windsor Park to go second in their World Cup qualifying group.
The performance would not have been a surprise for anyone who has watched O’Neill’s team closely over the past three years, particularly as their set-piece threat provided three of the four goals.
But Brunt reckons Azerbaijan may have been taken aback given how they fared in their previous meeting: an embarrassing 2-0 defeat towards the end of the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign.
The manager and many of the personnel may still be in place this weekend, but O’Neill’s side are a different proposition since that night at the Bakcell Arena, as they proved back in November.
“They will know a lot more about us now,” Brunt said. “The last time we played in Baku we lost 2-0 and they probably didn’t expect what we were going to do to them in November. I’d say they would be pretty wary of crosses and set pieces.
“We pretty much took them apart in Belfast with our deliveries into the box and the physicality of it. I’m sure they will look at that.
“If we can get the ball in where they have to defend it, hopefully we can cause them problems as we did in Belfast, though I’m sure they may be more prepared this time.
“We’ll prepare as we do for every game and look to see where we can hurt them. Set-pieces and crosses were a big part of it in November. We will watch their games back in the meetings and I’m sure it will be no different.”
It was at this point last year when the Green and White Army descended on France for the country’s first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.
Brunt was there, though only as a spectator having torn his cruciate while playing for West Brom the previous February.
So while most of O’Neill’s squad are driven by a chance to feature at an international finals again, Brunt’s motivation stems from missing out the first time around.
“Not getting to play in the summer was disappointing,” he said. “It’s part and parcel of football and there’s not much you can do about it.
“I missed the first couple of games of this World Cup campaign and saw that the boys were doing well, and since then we have continued to give ourselves a good chance of making the play-offs.
“It will take a miracle to stop Germany winning the group, but we have a realistic chance of a play-off spot and it would be great to qualify for a World Cup. It will be tough and I think the next couple of games will go a long way to determining that.”