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Tuesday 30 Aug 2016
Guide to 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier Opponents

With the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying campaign upon us, we take a look at our opponents in Group C...

AZERBAIJAN

This will be the third time in four World Cup qualifying campaigns the countries will have met, most recently back in October 2013 when second half goals from Rufat Dadashov and Mahir Shukurov handed the Azeri victory in Baku following on from a scoreless draw in Belfast.

Head Coach: Robert Prosinečki
Captain: Rashad Sadygov
Ranking: 136

Whilst Northern Ireland were preparing for the Euros, Azerbaijan travelled to Austria for a series of games against Andorra, Macedonia and Canada, drawing twice and losing the other.

The main goal threat could come via Dimitrij Nazarov, currently plying his trade with German club Erzgebirge Aue in Bundesliga 2. Nazarov, 26, has found the net on five occasions since making his debut just under two years ago.

Manager Robert Prosinečki hasn't been afraid to introduce new players into the panel since his appointment in December 2014, one of whom - midfielder Budag Nasirov - recently signed a five-year deal with Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon just weeks after making his international debut.

CZECH REPUBLIC

Northern Ireland's first opponents, the two countries last came up against each other during the 2010 qualifying campaign with both games failing to produce a goal.

Head Coach: Karel Jarolím
Captain: Tomáš Rosický
Ranking: 34

Despite qualifying as group winners, the Czech Republic suffered a disappointing Euro 2016 finals with only a 93rd minute Tomas Necid penalty against Croatia in Saint-Etienne preventing them from crashing to three first round straight defeats.

As a result of their poor showing, Karel Jarolim was installed as new head coach in July. He faces a period of rebuilding following the retirement of new fewer than five members of Euros squad, amongst them 'keeper Petr Cech and the 103-times capped Jaroslav Plasil.

That said, they still possess talent throughout their panel including the aforementioned Necid and Slavia Prague's Milan Skoda. Doubt remains over the future of current captain, the 35-year-old Tomas Rosicky, released by Arsenal over the summer but who, by all accounts, remains part of Jarolim's plans for the forthcoming qualifying campaign.

GERMANY

Germany need absolutely no introduction to Northern Ireland fans. One of the giants of world football, we have enjoyed a long and rich history with Die Mannschaft - and who could forget that memorable afternoon in the Parc des Princes back in June?

Head Coach: Joachim Löw
Captain: Manuel Neuer
Ranking: 4

Euro 2016 semi-finalists, Germany are clear favourites to emerge top of our World Cup qualifying group. Possessing undoubted strength throughout the squad, every campaign inevitably produces a number of retirements and Germany are no exception with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski calling time on their international careers.

But with every retirement comes the emergence of new blood, so the other teams in Group A could do well to keep an eye on the progress of Leroy Sané on the back of his new five-year deal with Manchester City or Bayern Munich's Joshua Kimmich, one of three Germans named in the Euro 2016 'Team of the Tournament' alongside Jérôme Boateng and Toni Kroos.

NORWAY

For those that were there to witness it, Norway will forever be associated as being the nation that Northern Ireland finally, finally broke that 1298 minute long scoring drought against back in 2004.

Competitively, Northern Ireland and Norway haven't been drawn together since the mid-70s. Since then, the sides have met five times in friendlies with the Norwegians winning on each occasion.

Head Coach: Per-Mathias Høgmo
Captain: Per Ciljan Skjelbred
Ranking: 50

Norway narrowly missed out on a place in the Euro 2016 finals, losing home and away to Hungary in the play-offs. They were a popular choice of opponent for sides preparing for the finals, losing to Portugal and Belgium but defeating Iceland in Oslo.

Coach Per-Mathias Høgmo works with a relatively inexperienced squad. Indeed, during their last outing in June only two members of the panel - Vegard Forren and Ruben Yttergård Jenssen - have over 30 caps to their name.

One of the newer members of the panel, Veton Berisha, scored against Belgium as did Bournemouth's Joshua King. At the back Palermo's Haitam Aleesami is beginning to establish himself while, in the middle of the park, skipper Per Ciljan Skjelbred will continue to control matters.

SAN MARINO

On paper, the minnows of the group, Northern Ireland have only met San Marino on two occasions. Both games, during the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, ended in comfortable victories for Nigel Worthington's side.

Head Coach: Pierangelo Manzaroli
Captain: Andy Selva
Ranking: 200

San Marino suffered the ignominy of crashing to a 10-0 defeat of Euro 2016 finalists Croatia in June which, to date, has been their only outing this year. Indeed, they have only avoided defeat five times in their history, the most recent a scoreless draw with Estonia a couple of years ago.

But any side writing them off does so at their peril as Lithuania almost found out to their cost when only a 92nd minute winner saw them squeeze to a narrow win during the last qualifying campaign while Slovenia also experienced more than a few anxious moments a couple of months after that.

Captained by Andy Selva, now 40, the vast majority of their squad plays in the domestic league with only one - the uncapped Luca Censoni - plying his trade over the border in Italy from this named in the panel for the Croatia game.