NORTHERN IRELAND: Will Washington start and other talking points

Conor Washington has been in good form for QPR. 
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Conor Washington has been in good form for QPR. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
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Going into Sunday evening’s crunch Group C clash with Norway, Northern Ireland occupy the driving seat in the race for second spot.

With Germany all but nailed on as group winners, NI currently sit second, ahead of Azerbaijan on goal-difference, two ahead of the Czech Republic and four ahead of this weekend’s opponents.

A win would be invaluable and a defeat could prove very costly. So what are the big talking-points ahead of the game?

HOW WILL O’NEILL SET UP?

Predicting O’Neill’s Northern Ireland XI - once a straightforward task - now involves a degree of guesswork. There should be at least two changes from the side that defeated Azerbaijan in the last qualifier as Shane Ferguson is suspended and Corry Evans has not played since January, while Craig Cathcart’s comeback could see a return to the back three that was so effective at the Euros.

Up front Conor Washington is the form striker but has worked best in a two. Will O’Neill consider the big man, little man combo that Washington has thrived in at QPR and pair him with Josh Magennis, himself a fitness doubt?

CAN WASHINGTON STEP UP?

Just over a year to the day that he made his international bow, former non-league striker Washington must now be thought of as ‘the man’.

Kyle Lafferty has at least been used by Norwich recently, though he has not scored in those fleeting cameos and O’Neill will know he has an in-form alternative.

WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM NORWAY?

An improvement, surely? A nation that beat Brazil at the World Cup 19 years ago became the first to concede an away goal in 15 years to San Marino back in October.

Four players who started the last game will not in Belfast through injury, suspension or retirement, and the uber-experienced Lars Lagerback has since come in as manager. The Premier League’s March Player of the Month nominee Josh King will surely spearhead the attack after scoring eight in his past eight games for Bournemouth.

CAN THE WEST BROM TRIO BRING THEIR CLUB FORM?

Strong West Brom, strong Northern Ireland? That is the way it has been at the start of this campaign with Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt all excellent for club and country.

The criminally underrated Evans remains one of English football’s finest centre-backs and at 37 his defensive colleague McAuley has played every minute for the Baggies, weighing in with more Premier League goals than Riyad Mahrez and Mesut Ozil too. One more international goal will take McAuley beyond George Best.

Brunt was inspirational on his Northern Ireland return back in November - making one and scoring another - and his set-piece delivery will be key once more.