Northern Ireland

One point of a possible six so far doesn’t sound the best, but with the most difficult fixture- away to Italy- already out of the way it’s a case of upwards and onwards for Northern Ireland as they aim to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

This international window will see the Green and White Army face back-to-back away fixtures to Estonia and Lithuania before hosting Switzerland at home in what will be the first time the sides have met since their 2018 FIFA World Cup Play-off match. However, the Estonia fixture will be a friendly match and this will allow the squad to be experimented with and rotated.

Northern Ireland will be without a number of key players such as defender and vice-captain Jonny Evans. This is a huge blow for Ian Baraclough’s side, but a match-sharp Daniel Ballard is more than capable of stepping into Evans’ role after impressing for Millwall so far this season.

Corry Evans will also miss the camp due to injury and Stuart Dallas has had to withdraw for personal reasons.

Liam Donnelly, Alife McCalmont, Tom Flanagan and Kyle Lafferty have all been drafted into the side to help give Baraclough a competitive and fit squad to choose from as there is injury concerns for a number of players.

Adam Salder, the replacement for the recently appointed Scotland Assistant coach Austin MacPhee, will not be present at his first camp since his appointment due to a family bereavement.

The away fixture to Lithuania should be an easy three points for Northern Ireland, but the Green and White Army never make light work of ‘easier opponents’. The first match of any international window usually has the feel of players trying to play their way into the game and they are hardly ever at 100% of their own ability.

Northern Ireland need a strong start against Lithuania and the battles for places, particularly in the striking department, should give them an edge as players trying and lay a marker down for a place in the starting XI for the final two matches of the international break.

The friendly fixture away to Estonia will be very tough and especially with no away supporters in any of the qualifiers in September. Estonia was difficult to break down when Northern Ireland played them in the UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers but still managed to come away with a 2-1 victory.

Konstantin Vassiljev is a key player for Estonia and is also their captain. He impressed in both the home and away fixtures against Northern Ireland in 2019 and is the Estonian equivalent to Steven Davis. Calm and composed on the ball with a great eye for a pass.

The home fixture against Switzerland will be a huge game for Northern Ireland, with the significance for the fans possibly outweighing what is actually on offer on the pitch. The last time Switzerland arrived at Windsor Park was the night of the first-leg in a play-off match for qualification to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Unfortunately, Corry Evans is unavailable for that game as it would have been great to see him dominate the Northern Ireland midfield after apparently handling the ball against the Swiss the last time they played at Windsor Park…but enough said about that.

Northern Ireland can probably take four points out of a possible nine over the course of two competitive matches, with the home game against Switzerland most likely ending in a draw. It will be great to see Windsor Park rocking against the Swiss and it is great that things are looking up in terms of getting football back to some level of normality.