Northern Ireland and Slovakia are both one win away from qualifying for UEFA Euro 2020 next summer.
That is correct, an event in 2021 running under 2020 branding, but this is due to the postponement of the tournament in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
“They want to get down to business.” That is the keywords spoken by Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough who will take charge of his country for only the sixth time.
After seeing the Republic of Ireland put in a strong performance against the Slovakians, despite losing the game on penalties, it has given the former Sligo Rovers manager confidence going into the fixture, “It’s a game we’re capable of winning if we set our minds right if we do the right things.”
There have been a few drop-outs of the Northern Ireland squad, with the most notable exemption being Blackburn Rovers midfielder Corry Evans, who has picked up a hamstring injury against QPR.
Winger Matty Kennedy didn’t join up with the Northern Ireland squad but former Liverpool youngster Ryan McLaughlin is brought in and can play in a variety of positions.
“Ryan can play in multiple positions, he can play one-up, he can play in wide areas, he’s got good pace and he’s been in and around the group before.
“He’s had injury problems over time, but he’s getting a good run of games with Rochdale and he’s the right one to bring in as unfortunately, Matty Kennedy couldn’t join up with us.
“He’s just feeling something there again so Ryan’s got a chance to come into the group.”
Slovakia will be tough opposition for Northern Ireland, but they do have some selection issues of their own.
Former Liverpool centre-back Martin Skrtel was expected to make a return to International football but has been ruled out through injury. There has also been talk of some Italian based players not being allowed to travel, the same as against the Republic of Ireland. If this is the case it would rule Inter Milan centre back Milan Škriniar. Slovakian media have reported that he will travel and if so it will be a big boost for the away side.
Northern Ireland has faced the Slovakians on four previous occasions, being victorious on one occasion, drawing one and losing the other two. That win came back in 1998 at Windsor Park, with the most recent meeting ending in a draw in June 2016. This game was also Northern Ireland’s final Euro 2016 warm-up fixture, but it was also Aaron Hughes’ 100th appearance for his country.
My Predicted Northern Ireland Starting XI:
Goalkeeper: Bailey Peacock-Farrell
Defenders: Stuart Dallas, Daniel Ballard, Craig Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Jamal Lewis
Midfielders: Steven Davis, Paddy McNair, George Saville
Forwards: Conor Washington, Josh Magennis
I have selected a team in a 5-3-2 formation as Northern Ireland played this way against Norway, and while still losing the match, it worked really well. The Slovakian attacking threat is strong but having three centre-backs should help keep them quiet.
The midfield trio of Davis, McNair and Saville should bring composure to the middle of the park, with McNair and Saville being able to go down the wing if needed. The wing-back role of Lewis and Dallas will utilise their abilities.
The height and strength of Josh Magennis will be useful upfront and the pace of Conor Washington will hopefully cause issues for the Slovakian back-line.
This is going to be a very close game, hopefully, one that will end in cheers of joy from the 1060 fans inside of Windsor Park.
Richard’s score prediction: Northern Ireland 0-0 Slovakia (NI to Win 4-3 on Penalties)