Northern Ireland faces one of their most difficult ties in recent times as they travel to Palma to take on the Azzurri, Italy.
It is going to be a difficult match for the Green and White Army, with a number of key players absent or facing late fitness calls. Michael McGovern, Trevor Carson, Nathan Gartside, Conor Washington and Liam Boyce all missing from the squad, while Jamal Lewis will face a late fitness call.
There is two different ways I would approach this game if I was in Ian Baraclough’s position. The fitness of Jamal Lewis is a key point and if he is fit for the game I would have him starting at left-back.
Given the level of concern for Lewis, and that this game isn’t one that the team will be prioritising for points, I would put Stuart Dallas at left-back and put Michael Smith at right-back.
I would keep Bailey Peacock-Farrell between the sticks, especially when the other keeps that traditionally fight for the number one shirt not available for this game.
For the rest of the defence, I would have Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans forming a centre-back partnership, and this experience will be crucial coming up against some of Europe’s best forwards.
The other possible option would be playing a 5-3-2 which Northern Ireland has done in a few of the UEFA Nations League matches. If this is the case, I would bring Daniel Ballard into the back three and play Matty Kennedy at left-wing-back, with Dallas takes up the position on the opposite flank.
If Lewis is fit then I could see Michael Smith potentially being put into midfield, or maybe even Dallas with Smith occupying the right-back slot. Steven Davis and Paddy McNair are nailed on for a starting spot, but if Northern Ireland plays a 4-5-1 which they have in the past, I would partner them with Gavin Whyte, Alistair McCann and George Saville, with Josh Magennis leading the line up-front.
Playing a 3-5-2 would lead to me leaving McCann out of the squad to be replaced by Ballard in the defence.
But what will Baraclough do?
His squad selection is very much looking to the future. Niall McGinn wasn’t going to be in the squad until Jordan Jones had to pull out last minute, this is despite being the hero in Bosnia. I think for this game Baraclough will go with the traditional 4-5-1 and get the team full of experienced players.
The friendly match against the USA allows the opportunity for experimentation and the qualifier against Bulgaria after should be a game that Northern Ireland fancies their chances of winning and should be able to make a few changes…however, we know that even San Marino can give Northern Ireland difficulties at times.
Italy will be a very tricky opponent but if Northern Ireland can be resolute in their defending then anything can happen.
Prediction Italy 2-0 Northern Ireland