Michael O’Neill is in little doubt about the importance of the next two matches for Northern Ireland – away to San Marino on Friday and home to the Czech Republic the following Monday. They resemble the situation two years ago at this point in the Euro ’16 qualifying, when NI had a supposedly easier away game on paper to the Faroes and then a home game against closest group rivals Hungary. As then, the absolute minimum to maintain our own destiny is four points. Should the 2017 equivalent mirror 2015, NI could well have ensured their second place should other results go as expected with Germany playing the Czech Republic on Friday. A win and a Czech defeat mean we would play the Czechs seven points ahead of them.
Most managers, of course, don’t like to look beyond the next game, but the heavier cloud of the Czech game a few days later may well have a huge bearing on his team selection for Friday. This is due to a few injuries that he will have to accommodate.
Liam Boyce, Paddy McNair, Jamie Ward, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart are definitely out. Next on the worry list is Jonny Evans, who has not played for West Brom this season with an ongoing hamstring injury. Jonny Evans has other things on his mind too with a possible move to Manchester City but he is not the sort of character to let that affect him. Suddenly, for a team that has always had a proliferation of centre backs the cupboard is looking a little bare and the manager’s decision to give Burton’s Tom Flanagan his first cap against New Zealand in June looks very prudent.
He has other concerns to consider as well. Goalkeeper Michael McGovern has played one Carabao cup game this season and Corry Evans may not have two successive games in him as his groin injury requires a certain management. This possible centre back deficit may well force his hand away from a 3-5-2 formation but at the same time, he may consider it not necessary to play four defenders against San Marino. Many feel the team is better balanced with four and this would allow Chris Brunt to get forward and use his left foot to greater effect than if he is in a more central midfield. If Corry Evans does indeed need to be managed, perhaps Norwood can continue to do the defensive midfield duties to allow Evans an out and out ninety minutes against the Czechs.
The last minute win in Baku though will have wonders for the team and they have shown that they now are a squad that can deal with injury and other matters. McAuley’s offensive aerial power will be missed along with the fact that he simply hasn’t missed a game for a few years now. Up front, there are a few options. Jamie Ward’s lizard speed is a miss and Boyce offers a different threat but Lafferty, Washington and Maginnis provide running, power and finishing. Maginnis also provides options wide right as his powerhouse performance against Azerbaijan in November was illustrated well. He may well share duties there with McGinn over the two games as Dallas and Ferguson may do on the other side of the pitch.
We have yet to concede a goal against San Marino having played them three times. Interestingly, they have had two red cards against us and NI had a difficult time breaking them down in the October match at Windsor. Indeed it took Kyle Lafferty’s late second half introduction to cut loose to the 4-0victory following Davis’ first half penalty. They can be niggly opponents but O’ Neill as always will leave little to chance and his team have learned so much in recent years. If the team can win the game early against San Marino, maximum use of substitutions is a must to set them up well for Monday and indeed the squad should be used to the limit. Flanagan, for instance, should maybe get a full run out in a competitive game though again, his playing time for Burton has been patchy so far this season. As in the Euros, we may well look to cap centurion and stalwart Aaron Hughes to bolster matters at the back. No better man.
It goes without saying that three points is the absolute must against San Marino and they indeed should be acquired. However, whilst Northern Ireland for three years now have enjoyed an excellent run of form, this game could be difficult and must be treated with total respect. For a lot of Northern Ireland’s sporting history, this was the sort of game that would trip the team up, but O’Neill’s greatest benefit to the team has been ridding them of this mental weakness against inferior sides. I would expect a two nil win and if the team can escape with no injuries and bookings, the expected two and a quarter thousand green army should return from the Adriatic coast in good spirits for the Windsor showdown against the Czechs.