Sanchez's hard line with clubs cuts injury problems

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The Independent Football

Lawrie Sanchez, the Northern Ireland manager, saw his selection options improve dramatically last night when four of the five players who pulled out of the World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan today became available for the match with Austria on Wednesday.

Norwich's Paul McVeigh, George McCartney of Sunderland, Gary Hamilton of Port-adown and Crewe's Steve Jones will now come into contention. Danny Sonner of Peterborough remains absent because of a family bereavement.

The sudden availability of the quartet followed the decision by Sanchez to invoke Fifa's four-day rule. Had they not attended the Austria match, they would have been ineligible to play for their clubs next weekend.

Sanchez explained his dilemma earlier when he said: "The clubs are not happy. But all international managers have a problem with call-offs whether you are at the top or the bottom. It is a bigger problem now because of the rewards in club football. Clubs always want their best players to be available to them.

"When we come to World Cup games, Fifa allow me to have priority for these players. The four-day rule is for those clubs, players, whatever, who might think, 'I will miss this trip and be available for my club'. It just takes it out of the equation for them.

"But it is disappointing for fans of the international team to see someone miss two games, then suddenly reappear for their club the following Saturday," Sanchez added. "Dealing with the clubs and players is the biggest bane of any international manager's job. The rest is fantastic."

Sanchez will be forced to make at least three changes for today's game from the team which drew 2-2 in Wales as leading scorer David Healy, Michael Hughes and Tony Capaldi are all suspended. Hull's Stuart Elliott, Tommy Doherty of Bristol City and the Southampton defender Chris Baird look set to return to the starting line-up in Baku.

Sanchez knows this is a crucial week for his team after taking just one point from their first two qualifiers. However, Northern Ireland have gone six away matches unbeaten - three wins and three draws.

"Results have improved," Sanchez said. "We now score goals and offer more of a threat. This group of players have responded to what we have tried to put to them. The team spirit in Cardiff summed up the spirit in the camp.

"The Azerbaijan game is one we should be looking to win if we want to do anything in this group. You grade the games from one to 10 on the list, from hardiest to easiest, and this is ninth on the list."

Northern Ireland (probable): Taylor (Birmingham); A Hughes (Newcastle), Murdock (Hibernian), Williams (MK Dons), Baird (Southampton); Johnson (Birmingham), Whitley (Sunderland), Doherty (Bristol City), Clyde (Wolves); Elliott (Hull), Quinn (Willem II).

Referee: A Hanacsek (Hungary).