It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge there is some degree of apprehension about the opening two home matches of the next European Championship qualifiers. Being the Euros that follow Euro ’16 was always going to be a tough gig. In Northern Ireland footballing terms, this is like the next album after Dark Side of the Moon. Can it be repeated?
To matters less lunar. That degree of apprehension is caused primarily by a few things surrounding the squad with a fair dose of time and place. In a nutshell….various players not getting much club game-time, placement in one very tough group and a Nations’ League campaign that perhaps posed a few more questions than answers. We could even throw in that age-old nervousness that accompanies when Northern Ireland are playing teams they are expected to beat. That’s maybe laying it on a bit as that has been fairly well dealt with in the last five years.
I’ll bravely suggest that taken in individuality, these matters by and large are not anything that any Northern Ireland fan or manager has not had to deal with before. Put together though and the usual anticipation and enthusiasm for a new qualifying series is a little tainted. What strikes me though is that these are more easily tangible things to digest. A possible comfort blanket against the more worrying thought that the glory of the last few years have gone? Is there another generation gap before the next big moment a la 1958-1982-2016? At that rate, the next tournament would be 2060 if you follow the pattern. Then again, not if FIFA continue with their plan just to let everybody play in final tournaments.
Let’s try and break it down a bit. Players not playing then! Perhaps of all the positions the goalkeepers not playing regularly is the biggest concern. It’s just the one area where mistakes cost and who would have thought that Trevor Carson’s condition would have such impact months down the line. I believe the manager will keep young Bailey in as he is the future as much as a confidence boost.
In defence, if Lewis, Evans and Cathcart start, right-back is the problem area with Hearts’ Michael Smith out. Despite his near-permanent residence on a Teesside bench, I expect Paddy McNair to take that berth. The absence of Ollie Norwood has come out of the blue. This has resonance due to his excellent Sheffield United form and also the importance and reliability O’Neill takes from him. If we assume Corry Evans, (injury permitting) George Saville and Steve Davis will be in midfield, it is very possible the manager may well put Shane Ferguson on the left. He has been playing often and playing well for Millwall, has a great left foot for delivery and is a set-piece option too. O’Neill probably could have done without him playing two odd hours on Sunday against Brighton though. Dallas, the usual resident there may have to be sub due to reduced game-time. Between them, they should be able to man the left flank over the two games. He has good options on the flanks with Whyte, Jones and Maginn.
O’Neill may also consider 4-4-2 as none of the forwards are regularly knocking the goals in but that is probably unlikely. For he is keen on the flexibility of the 4-5-1/4-3-3 depending on how you look at it. It also gives him the option of bringing on new pace on the flanks or adding a second forward later in the game. The forwards available offer other various things between them. Height, penalty-box fox, speed, running power, good feet and hold-up play just to highlight a few individual characteristics. This all sits against the aforesaid lack of goals and also the fact that none of them have made a strong case for playing as a pair.
What he does have is apart from one or two positions, (most notably in the centre of defence) is a fair range of cover and some options on the bench if the games take a wrong turn. His substitute use will need to be well thought anyway with the close proximity of games and some players not used to 90 minutes. At least the travel is only to and from the Culloden Hotel and the team should not be chasing the ball all night. But there is a thought that he might try and get the goals in early so he can perhaps rest a few with Sunday in mind. It never quite works out like that though.
The pressure is of course that six points really are a must. Estonia finished bottom of their Nations’ League group of Hungary, Greece and Finland. So did we, but since then they have had two wins and a draw all away from home which is a bit more than ourselves. The ‘White Wings’ of Belarus as they are called finished top of their very weak Nations’ League group so perhaps their true level is hard to gauge. Their last meaningful result though in a friendly if you call it that, was a 2-0 away win to Slovenia last March. Both teams’ players mainly play in their domestic leagues with a smattering of players in Holland, Norway, Poland, Kazakhstan. Belarus have a few in the Russian league.
The Nations’ League campaign plays its part here. The plus side in these games was, of course, several new players coming in with a fairly good level of success and some very good performances……..but no wins and more than a few errors. In some ways as alluded to earlier, it is really not anything that NI have not had to deal with before. Maybe 2019 just has a different costume on. The manager though will definitely have a different sort of a challenge here in his tenure with what he has and what he is facing. But there should be players who will be delighted to be back amongst each other, players who will be very glad to get playing and fans who should do what they do best. There is nothing here that all involved shouldn’t be eagerly awaiting.