Planes, trains and automobiles: Northern Ireland face Azerbaijan
By Paul Gilmour in Belfast
Last Updated: 11/11/16 9:59am
Sky Sports News HQ reporter Paul Gilmour previews Northern Ireland's World Cup Qualifying clash with Azerbaijan on Friday, a game live on Sky Sports 1 HD...
What is it about this fixture and methods of transport?
In Baku, before Northern Ireland lost 2-0 in a World Cup Qualifier in 2013, Michael O'Neill's side were prevented from getting into training when a passing freight train blocked the entrance. The players, fed up of waiting, got out of the bus and walked the remainder of the journey.
A lot has changed for both sides since then. Northern Ireland, re-energised under the exciting leadership of O'Neill, reached a major finals while Azerbaijan, backed by heavy investment, are the surprise package of Group C having not conceded a goal so far - one of four teams along with Germany, England and Belgium to achieve this feat in the European section of qualifying.
On Tuesday, a side led by the former Real Madrid, Barcelona and Portsmouth midfielder Robert Prosinecki arrived in style at Belfast International Airport. Viewed as further evidence of their increasing financial clout, the players stepped out of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the first of its kind to land in Northern Ireland.
Facilities have also been a key theme for this fixture. Azerbaijan have benefited greatly from better pitches yet made the decision to begin their preparation in Belfast three days before the match. In fact, they arrived here a full 24 hours before O'Neill's side, who had a productive few days near Dublin before traveling north by coach to the team hotel.
Azerbaijan players didn't have it all their own way at the beginning of the week, though. On Wednesday they were informed that the training venue at Glentoran FC was waterlogged and the other two major Belfast venues (Crusaders and Cliftonville) were fully booked due to the popularity of their artificial pitches.
Irish Premiership strugglers Carrick Rangers came to the rescue, meaning a 10-minute trip to training became a 30-minute journey, but the visitors enjoyed a good session.
Prosinecki, who has affectionately been labelled 'Mr Angry' by his players, clearly had fond memories of his time on the south coast judging by his rendition of 'Play up Pompey' at the conclusion of our interview!
He decided to train at 7.45pm each night to coincide with the kick-off time on Friday.
"I personally don't put a lot of value on that," said Northern Ireland manager O'Neill.
"Our routine is similar to the clubs and what we've had is a consistent preparation over a longer period of time so players know what to expect when they come in."
What they didn't expect was to see firefighters battling a blaze at the team hotel. Minutes before the NI team arrived on Wednesday, a vehicle in the car park caught fire due to a technical fault. Emergency services were bringing the flames under control as the players made their way into the building.
First to face the Sky Sports cameras was Northern Ireland centurion and popular member of the squad Aaron Hughes. Having recently celebrated his 37th birthday, Hughes has traveled from India where he is playing for Kerala Blasters.
"India is brilliant, it really is a good experience," Hughes said. "The sport and league is on the up and away from football it is great to experience a different culture. Everyone is friendly and I'll look back fondly on this."
Hughes has been a consistent performer on his way to becoming NI's most capped outfield player but he appears more at ease coping with opposition strikers than India's cows!
"They're sacred over there and they pretty much do what they want," he added.
"We went for dinner the other night and they sit in the car parks in between the cars. Little things like that are different. You just wouldn't see that in Tesco back here!"
Northern Ireland can move second behind runaway leaders Germany with victory against Azerbaijan before hosting Norway in March. They've already drawn away in Czech Republic.
"We've as good a chance (of qualifying for the World Cup) as anyone in our group after the Germans," Hughes continued.
QPR's Conor Washington is doubtful with a groin problem but Chris Brunt of West Brom returns to the international set-up for the first time in 13 months following a serious knee injury.
The game is live on Sky Sports 1 HD from 7.30pm with build-up throughout the day on Sky Sports News HQ