Northern Ireland find themselves in their first ever World Cup play-off on Thursday 9th November since the 1958 Italian encounter. Cows and bells and William Tell will have to be countered with beef and balls and merry hell.
Whilst Switzerland will start as favourites this should still be a tight tie, in tandem with the other three. As before NI will be more than happy to let them have that title. In the last few years, Northern Ireland have learned to handle the favourites tag much more comfortably. However in this do or die battle I believe if they trawl into their history of ‘taking on the world’, they should be more potent.
Much has been made of NI playing at home first of all but I agree with those who are happy to start at home. I suppose the real test of this theory is if you had the choice what would you take? I still would tend to back NI defending a lead as having to take the creative route. The present team in the forthcoming battle has to believe that whatever is required they can manage that and their recent history shows that they should be able to do this.
Michael O’Neill is the perfect man for the double-headed beast that faces him. He more often than not gets his plan just right. He welcomes back Paddy McNair and Jamie Ward into the squad and with bookings, fitness and game-time issues this is very relevant. Having a minimum three hours of play within seventy- two hours, player fatigue is a stark whiteboard facing him for a team who maybe without the ball. Switzerland have a similar amount of players on yellow cards but the feeling persists that a lost player will hurt us more.
The Northern Ireland team generally picks itself these days and O’Neill is a great believer in the strongest team on the pitch. I imagine ahead of McGovern a back four of Brunt, McAuley, Evans and McGlaughlin could go into battle for possibly the last two times. A midfield of Corry Evans, Dallas, 100 cap man Davis, Norwood and Magennis wide right should complement Lafferty or Washington up front. Washington starting for the first leg and Lafferty for the second might make sense.
His bench work could be the benchmark of his managerial legacy with NI. Get this right and the Ballymena boy will laugh at the Matterhorn from Slemish mountain. Assuming no injuries, substitutions should feature Ward appearing at final stages. It is only his lack of game time this season that prevents Ward from starting as his speed adds a huge dimension to NI’s play. Without him many moves lose momentum as NI lack the pace to get behind teams first time and players are unwilling to lose the team’s shape to risk getting in a position to do that.
Newcomer George Saville has impressed with his ability to run with the ball and I expect to see him appear. Shane Ferguson has rarely let anyone down. His left foot is a good tribute act to Chris Brunt’s and he can replace Brunt or Dallas. The other key substitute could be Paddy McNair who can add physicality and resilience should the game need it.
One can second guess far into the distance and Switzerland will be a test and a half. Goals have come from their many different players and they have had impressive results. But in some ways their recent record and campaign is actually very similar to our own. They have more ways of hurting us is my major takeaway from them and their front three of Mehmedi, Seferovic and Shaqiri can score from distance and close in. Their movement immediately in and around the penalty box is excellent but Northern Ireland have had recent tuition from the Deutsche masters on dealing with this.
It should all be very tight and low scoring but I can easily see either a 0-0 or 1-0 at Windsor followed by a 0 -0 or 1-1 at Basel to see NI through. Michael O’Neill talks about the intensity the team showed against the Ukraine. It is a good point because they may very well need to show it once more, but the fact they know they have that to dip into is a great reserve to have both physically and mentally. Switzerland’s character and resolve will be tested at an insane Windsor Park and they will need to be able to make sure that they try and neutralise the fans. They are a team we have only played four times strangely and only twice competitively. In the sixties we lost 1-0 to them at home but won 2-1 in Switzerland. Could the nerves take that again?
Throughout their history, the Swiss have generally avoided bloodshed, but there is every chance they might need their ‘Lindt’ to staunch their wounds this time as against tasting its sweetness.