If ever a match showed how difficult it can be to bet on international football, it was Northern Ireland’s last World Cup qualifier.
The Irish were in Porto to face Portugal, a side who had made it to the semi-finals of the European Championships, where they were beaten in a penalty shoot-out by eventual winners Spain. It was the match that marked Cristiano Ronaldo’s 100th cap. Who gave Northern Ireland a prayer?
Nobody, that’s who. But that didn’t stop the coupon buster to end all coupon busters, as Michael O’Neill’s side managed to come back to Belfast with a 1-1 draw – an incredible result given the difference in talent between the nations.
It was nearly a win, too, as Niall McGinn’s opener was only cancelled out by Helder Postiga’s fortunate late equaliser and even if Northern Ireland’s goal led a slightly charmed life, they were worthy of a point for the way the excellent Jonny Evans marshalled his defence.
But as good as that result and performance was for O’Neill, it has to be said that it has been a rare ray of sunshine in what has been a pretty dark time for football in Northern Ireland. A draw in Portugal would be a good result for anyone, but what preceded it has been quite depressing for all connected with the national team.
Northern Ireland haven’t won since beating Faroe Islands 4-0 in Belfast in August 2011 – a run of ten fixtures without a win. Seven of those matches have been lost and even if you would expect the Irish to be losing away to Italy, Holland and Russia (although an aggregate loss of 11-0 does nothing for the confidence), then some of the results have been extremely disappointing.
Irish fans have the right to expect more than conceding six goals in defeats home and away to Estonia, while losing at home 3-0 to Norway shouldn’t be excused, either. And that draw against Portugal was preceded by home draws against Finland and Luxemburg – poor results in anyone’s language.
So what to make of the fact that in Wednesday’s World Cup Qualifier at home to Azerbaijan at Windsor Park, Northern Ireland are odds-on favourites to win the match? O’Neill’s side are 67/100 to pick up a first win of the campaign, with the draw at 13/5 and the away side at 17/4, and I’m not sure I want to be backing the home side at those odds given their record.
Not that Azerbaijan are any great shakes, far from it, but there doesn’t seem to be much difference in quality between the sides. Over their last ten games, Azerbaijan have lost away in Japan, Turkey, Portugal and Russia, but have picked up three wins against India, Albania and Bahrain: not stellar opposition by any means, but a win is a win and that is more than Ireland have managed over the same period.
Northern Ireland failed to win a further eight matches before beating the Faroes (and those included games against Wales, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Albania, who Azerbaijan did manage to beat) and with a run of one win in 19 matches, I’m not having O’Neill’s men and I think that laying them by backing Azerbaijan plus a goal at 23/20 is the way to play it here.
Over that 19-game period, Azerbaijan have managed to avoid defeat nine times: not a brilliant record, but it is enough to make me think they can pick up a result against a side that don’t convince and that you should not be touching at odds-on. Instead, take the 23/20 that Northern Ireland fail to pick up all three points.