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5 talking points ahead of Northern Ireland’s friendly against Estonia

Lithuania Northern Ireland WCup 2022 Soccer
(Image credit: Mindaugas Kulbis)

Northern Ireland head to Tallinn on Sunday for a friendly against Estonia.

After the highs of Thursday’s World Cup qualifying win over Lithuania and before the crunch fixture against Switzerland on Wednesday, Ian Baraclough will get an opportunity to test some of his fringe players at Le Coq Arena.

Here, the PA news agency looks at the key talking points ahead of the game.

Burden or opportunity?

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The international triple-headers that have become a feature of football during the pandemic put a strain on everyone, but particularly on the smaller nations with a limited pool of players. Arguably Northern Ireland would be better off without Sunday’s game, instead trying to build directly on the 4-1 win in Lithuania by putting all their attention on Wednesday’s visit of the Swiss, but the fixture list has other ideas and they find themselves in Tallinn. Baraclough plans to give fringe players their chance and continue to blood youngsters, but those in his plans to start on Wednesday will take a seat on the bench.

Major changes planned

Lithuania Northern Ireland WCup 2022 Soccer

Paddy McNair scored on Thursday but also earned a yellow card to rule him out of the Switzerland game (Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)

There have been no changes to the squad since Lithuania with George Saville – who was suspended on Thursday – having not made the trip. But Baraclough will name a completely different starting line-up in Tallinn as the key men are wrapped in cotton wool. Paddy McNair could again feature after his yellow card on Thursday ruled him out of the Switzerland game, but otherwise it is easy to imagine there will be no others who retain their place in the starting line-up.

Another chance for the youngsters

Liverpool v Osasuna – Pre-Season Friendly – Anfield

Liverpool’s Conor Bradley will be among those hoping to feature in Tallinn (Peter Byrne/PA)

Baraclough reaped the rewards of having got game experience into the likes of Daniel Ballard, Shayne Lavery and Ali McCann as they starred in Thursday’s win, with Ballard and Lavery both scoring their first international goals. And he wants to do more of the same on Sunday so it would be no surprise to see the likes of Conor Hazard, Conor Bradley and Alfie McCalmont named in the starting line-up. There will also be opportunities for the likes of Tom Flanagan, Ciaron Brown and Dion Charles to add to their international experience.

Happy memories

Estonia v Northern Ireland – UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying – Group C – A. Le Coq Arena

Northern Ireland were 2-1 winners in Estonia in 2019 (Steven Paston/PA)

It is only two years since Northern Ireland were last in Estonia, with late goals from Conor Washington and Josh Magennis having earned a come-from-behind 2-1 win during the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign in June 2019. Estonia have lost all three of their World Cup qualifiers so far – going down 5-2 to Belgium on Thursday- and are preparing for another tough task with Wales to come on Wednesday.

One eye on Basel

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While Northern Ireland are in friendly action, the Group C campaign continues elsewhere with Switzerland hosting Italy in Basel. Baraclough will be rooting for an Italy win, which would leave Northern Ireland two points behind the Swiss going into Wednesday’s match at Windsor Park. But the European champions were held to a home draw by Bulgaria on Thursday night, justifying Baraclough’s predictions that there will be more twists to come during this qualifying campaign.