Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill will make changes for his side’s World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan but insists he is not considering experimentation for its own sake.
The prospect of a place in Rio next year disappeared a long time ago, meaning O’Neill could use Friday’s match in Baku and the trip to Israel four days later as a chance to look at his options and hand peripheral players a chance to stake their claim.
But any chance of that happening probably died in Luxembourg last month when a chastening 3-2 defeat left the side with some serious making up to do.
Positive results over the next week, combined with favourable ones elsewhere, might help Northern Ireland avoid slipping into pot five for the Euro 2016 draw, meaning O’Neill must go with his strongest side.
That does not mean he will spare the axe, though, as he looks to fill his side with individuals who have been regulars at club level.
The likes of Roy Carroll, Daniel Lafferty and Oliver Norwood have played less than they would have liked in recent weeks and may pay with their places.
“We have to build a mentality to win games and the only way to do that is by winning, so we can’t afford to use these matches to experiment that manner,” he said.
“It would be nice to give the less experienced players some game time because they will benefit from that in the future but the imperative is to pick a side we think can win the game. That’s what we will do.
“But there are a number of things to consider. Players aren’t indispensible: performances keep you in the team.
“If you look at the team we played against Russia (in August), apart from the lads whose season hadn’t started yet, the other seven or eight had basically played the first three or four games for their club. Since then the some of their game time has been limited and inconsistent.
“These are important games and you want your team as game ready as possible. That is always a factor.”
Aberdeen forward Niall McGinn is another who has appeared less than usual in recent weeks, but that is due to an ankle problem sustained in the Luxembourg match.
He was named as a slight doubt by O’Neill when the team touched down in Azerbaijan but is back in contention after proving his fitness.
“It was just a precautionary thing with Niall really,” he explained.
“He had a bit of bone bruising that was picked up in Luxembourg and he has only played limited time for his club since then but he is fine.”
Friday’s meeting at the Bakcell Arena represents the last chance in the present campaign for Northern Ireland to beat a lower-ranked nation.
Their one success to date came against Fabio Capello’s Russia, but they have taken only a point from two matches against Luxembourg and need an injury-time equaliser for a share of the spoils in the home match against Azerbaijan.
While O’Neill does not want to get bogged down in FIFA rankings – his side are 86th, to their opponents’ 107th for the record – he does admit breaking that run would be helpful in the future.
He said: “Where a team is ranked…that’s not significant for me. But looking at this group Portugal and Russia were always going to be the two strongest teams and the favourites.
“The key is to put yourself in a position to win the group within the group. In Euro 2016 third spot has potential qualification and at minimum a play-off.
“Beating the other teams around you will certainly help towards winning a group within the group.”