Northern Ireland host Norway in a World Cup qualifier on Sunday hoping to take another significant step on the road to Russia.
Four games into their 10-match campaign, Michael O’Neill’s men have taken seven points and lie second behind Germany in the quest to pick up a play-off berth.
Here, News Letter Sport looks at the talking points ahead of the encounter with the Norwegians at Windsor Park.
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 presence of a man who has never lost to England, and who led Iceland to that famous victory over them in Euro 2016, will command respect from their hosts this weekend, even if it is hard to know how they will line up. Josh King will surely spearhead Lagerback’s attack after scoring eight in his past eight games for Bournemouth.
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 THE WEST BROM TRIO BRING THEIR CLUB FORM WITH THEM?
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.
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 who has been netting Championship goals in Washington. Hoops boss Ian Holloway has restored his confidence after previous manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink eroded it and O’Neill wants to see the same hungry forward who scored two in his first three international appearances.
WOULD NORTHERN IRELAND BE SATISFIED WITH JUST A POINT?
Second place in Group C is the best on offer given Germany have all but sewn up the qualifying spot already. Northern Ireland hold the advantage heading into this round of fixtures but only on goal difference over the Azeris, and O’Neill’s men are only two and four points ahead of the Czech Republic and Norway respectively. Fixtures at Windsor Park are seen as pivotal to the country’s fortunes in this campaign and their most recent competitive loss came against Portugal in 2013. There is a secret points target that O’Neill’s side are striving for each round, so will anything less than 10 heading into the summer be seen as a failure?