Northern Ireland will face the Republic of Ireland in Dublin on Thurseday night, desperate to avoid a repeat of their last visit south in 2011 when they were hammered 5-0, and to find some kind of confidence-building result to take into next year’s Euro 2020 qualifiers.
Michael O’Neill’s side have played some decent football in the last couple of months but have only a friendly win over Israel in September to show for it, with their Nations League campaign proving deeply frustrating.
Here we look at five talking points around Thursday’s game.
This may only be a ‘friendly’, but, if the rivalry between these two nations was not enough to add an edge to the game, both sides’ urgent need for a win should. Northern Ireland have only two wins in their last 11, and the Republic just one in their last nine. Given that the problems for both teams start with turning chances into goals, no one should be expecting a goal-fest at the Aviva Stadium. For all Northern Ireland’s upturn in recent years, victory for the Green and White Army would be their first away win in a friendly since they beat Finland in 2006.
With Northern Ireland struggling to turn chances into goals, the return of Kyle Lafferty should be a welcome one. The 31-year-old is second on the all-time goal-scoring list for Northern Ireland, but just a month ago there were serious questions over his international future after he withdrew from Michael O’Neill’s squad at the last minute, angering the manager. But that has all been resolved now and the Rangers man has been welcomed back by his team-mates.
Eye on Vienna
As big as Thursday’s friendly is for fans of both teams, Northern Ireland could be forgiven for having one eye on events in Vienna, where Austria host Bosnia and Herzegovina. A win for the visitors would keep Northern Ireland alive in the Nations League, but any other result would confirm their relegation and leave Sunday’s match at Windsor Park as a dead rubber. Northern Ireland’s hopes appear slim, however, given Austria’s only home defeat in the past two years was a 3-0 friendly loss to Brazil ahead of the World Cup, and they have won seven of the last eight.
With no Under-21 fixture this week, O’Neill has called up a number of promising youngsters to give them a flavour of life in the senior set-up. Paul Smyth, Jordan Thompson, Conor Hazard and Bobby Burns are all part of a 29-man squad which gives the manager plenty of options. The aim is to freshen up the squad and reward some of the stand-out performers from the Under-21s’ impressive Euro qualifying campaign, but O’Neill did not commit to actually using any of the players in either match this week. “For some of them it’s just experience and we don’t clash with an under-21 match at the same time - I’d never take them away from an under-21 fixture unless they were going to play,” he said. “But I won’t just be giving out caps easily. It’ll be how the team is performing on the night.”
A battle off the pitch
With this the first meeting between the two nations since 2011, much of the rivalry has been played out off the pitch and in the arena of player eligibility. Both managers often find themselves looking at the same young players who are eligible for either nation. O’Neill said he has previously spoken to Jimmy Dunne - who was named in the Republic’s provisional squad for this match but did not make the final cut - about switching, but does not expect anything to come from it. But O’Neill seemed frustrated that Michael Duffy, who has played 12 times for Northern Ireland’s Under-19s and Under-21s, still has not spoken to him personally to confirm his decision to favour the Republic. “Michael has to make a decision and he is entitled to make it and hopefully at the age of 24 he’ll be able to pick the phone up,” he said.