Northern Ireland has been placed into a difficult group for the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers, with the Green and White Army joining Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Lithuania in Group C.
The last time Northern Ireland qualified for the FIFA World Cup was in 1986 in Mexico, after also qualifying for the 1982 finals in Spain the tournament before. They also managed to qualify for the 1958 finals in Sweden, this was also the last World Cup qualifying group that contained both Italy and Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland almost reached the finals of the rescheduled Euro 2020, losing at the final hurdle against Slovakia. They almost reached the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but a controversial handball decision against Corry Evans meant Northern Ireland were knocked out by Switzerland.
Italy will be a tough team for Northern Ireland to play, with them being four times World Champions. Their most recent success was in 2006, but since then their fortunes have been the same. In both the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, they were knocked out in the Group stage. They did not even qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Northern Ireland will be out for revenge against Switzerland, with this probably being the game that will have the most significance on the group. Only the top two teams can have a chance of reaching the finals, with the group winners automatically qualifying and the runners-up joining two teams from the UEFA Nations League in the play-off round.
Bulgaria is the fourth seeds in the group, with Lithuania the fifth seeds. These are the two teams that everyone else in the group are expected to beat but are both capable of taking points of anyone and these fixtures may prove vital in the final outcome of the group.
Northern Ireland starts their campaign away to Italy, in what is probably the most difficult fixture of them all. This fixture will be played on March 25. The second game of this International period will be a friendly match ahead of their fixture against Bulgaria at home on March 31.
The second International break of the campaign will start with an away tie against Lithuania on September 5 before they play another friendly match. They then face the revenge-fuelled match against Switzerland at home on September 8.
The away tie to Switzerland will take place on October 9, before they travel to Bulgaria on October 12. The campaign then rounds out with two homes ties, with Lithuania first up on November 12, followed by Italy on November 15.
The positioning of the friendly matches has been kind to Northern Ireland as it will allow them to rest their key and experienced players to ensure they can play the full 90 minutes in the competitive matches. It will also give the younger players an opportunity to develop to put the squad in a strong position for the next campaign when the more experienced players decide to hang up their boots…unless Davis wants to continue playing in his 40’s (which I don’t think many would be against).
This is going to be a challenging group, but with the heartache of the previous two campaigns being used as motivation by the players and the hopeful return to a packed Windsor Park in the not-so-distant future, things can only get better for the Green and White Army.