Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan: Healy can help Sanchez to take another step forward

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The Independent Football

Sanchez has done a good job of stabilising and then gradually developing the goal-shy squad he inherited from Sammy McIlroy. They have been beaten twice by Poland and once by England, but draws in Wales and Azerbaijan and at home to Austria, when they might well have won, show a level of progress that has put them fourth in the group.

Sanchez has developed a real spirit in his squad, who take on Azerbaijan, the bottom team in the group, on Saturday in Belfast before hosting England the following Wednesday. Sanchez has a gem in the Leeds striker David Healy, a sound goalkeeper in Maik Taylor, of Birmingham City, with back-up from West Ham's Roy Carroll, and a firecracker in Keith Gillespie. The former Manchester United, Newcastle United and Leicester City winger, who is now with Sheffield United, is capable of brilliance, but it is just as typical that he was sent off as a result of a fracas during the disappointing 1-1 draw with Malta in a friendly match two weeks ago.

Happily for Sanchez, under Fifa rules Gillespie is suspended only for friendly matches and can play in the World Cup qualifiers organised by the game's world governing body.

Sanchez was philosophical. "He is a lad who plays with his heart and commitment when he has a Northern Ireland shirt on," he said after the Malta game. "He was one of our better players tonight."

Healy made it 16 goals in 39 internationals in that match in Malta, and Taylor underlined his importance to the team by preserving the draw with a penalty save in the closing moments.

Azerbaijan have scored only once in seven qualifying games but they, too, have steadied the ship after a bad start. When Carlos Alberto was their coach, he seemed to have a problem differentiating between his squad and the Brazilian World Cup-winning side that he captained. The result of their unfettered, adventurous play was an 8-0 thrashing in Poland, a 3-0 defeat in the return match and a new coach in the shape of Vagif Sadygov. Or rather the return of Sadygov, who has been coach twice before.

No surprises there, then, and there should be no shocks in store for Sanchez on Saturday either.