5 talking points ahead of Northern Ireland v Estonia
Northern Ireland will begin their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign this week with back-to-back home games against Estonia and Belarus.
With Holland and Germany the other two nations in Group C, getting off to a winning start looks to be a minimum requirement if this campaign is not to be a repeat of last year’s deeply frustrating Nations League.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at five talking points around Thursday’s game.
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) March 20, 2019
The draw may have been harsh on Northern Ireland but the fixture list has arguably been kind, with home and away games against Estonia and Belarus first up. Keeping Holland and Germany off the board until the autumn, and starting the campaign at Windsor Park, gives Northern Ireland a strong chance of picking up early points and building some momentum before the tougher asks to come. On the flip side, however, if Michael O’Neill’s side cannot take the chances in front of them this week, they may find their campaign is effectively over before it has begun.
Northern Ireland played some exciting, expansive football at times during last year’s Nations League, but came away with absolutely nothing to show for it. Four games, four defeats, with the final indignity being Austria’s stoppage-time winner at Windsor Park in November ensuring they did not even pick up a single point. Four months may have passed but the players have not entirely forgotten, and are desperate to pick up a first competitive victory since a 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over the Czech Republic in September 2017.
For all the Nations League failed to deliver in terms of results, it did see O’Neill transform his teams tactics. Far from relying on counter-attacks and set-pieces to pick off teams, Northern Ireland became a possession-orientated team who created chances from open play, albeit failing to convert enough of them to prosper. It is a style they will be looking to repeat in this campaign. “If you look at where we’ve come from as a team, we’re a far more possession-based team than we were in previous campaigns,” O’Neill said. “That’s how we want to approach the games going forward. I’m looking forward to it and I sense that in the players.”
It is not new for a large proportion of the Northern Ireland team to struggle for regular playing time at club level, but the problem seems particularly acute at present. Captain Steven Davis left Southampton for Rangers on loan in January in the hope of playing more games but that is yet to materialise, while goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, first choice for O’Neill for the Nations League last year, has lost his place at Leeds this year.
Come a long way
Northern Ireland last faced Estonia eight years ago during the 2012 World Cup qualifying campaign, their only previous meetings with the country, and lost both home and away. Those games took place just a few months before O’Neill took charge and oversaw a huge turnaround in the nation’s fortunes, guiding them to Euro 2016 – their first major tournament in 30 years. He will hope victory against them this time can set Northern Ireland on their way to repeating that achievement.