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Talking points ahead of Northern Ireland’s two remaining World Cup qualifiers

Northern Ireland v Switzerland – FIFA World Cup 2022 – European Qualifying – Group C – Windsor Park
(Image credit: Liam McBurney)

Northern Ireland’s hopes of reaching Qatar 2022 were dashed last month but they still have two games left to play in their World Cup qualifying campaign.

Before European champions Italy come calling on Monday, Lithuania will be the visitors to Windsor Park on Friday night.

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

Finish strong

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Defeat to Switzerland killed the Qatar dream last month before an even more disappointing collapse in the 2-1 loss in Bulgaria. The second-half performance in Sofia led to much criticism of the performance, and saw Northern Ireland slip to fourth in Group C. Now they must show a response – and not only because the final placings in the qualification groups determine seeding for future draws. They also need to raise spirits and deliver a win for the fans. Northern Ireland have gone nine home matches without a win, with Windsor Park’s reputation as a fortress crumbling as a result. Friday is an opportunity to start correcting that.

Evans returns

Chelsea v Leicester City – Emirates FA Cup Final – Wembley Stadium

Jonny Evans is back after several months of injury struggles (Matt Childs/PA)

Jonny Evans is back in the squad to give Ian Baraclough a huge boost with his experience invaluable as more youngsters come through. Evans has not played for his country since March as he deals with a long-term foot injury – missing the vital part of the qualifying campaign in the last two windows. His return is all the more welcome given that fellow defender Daniel Ballard has been ruled out of Friday’s match and seems likely to miss Monday too due to a knee problem.

The end of the road?

Northen Ireland v Bulgaria – FIFA World Cup 2022 – European Qualifying – Group C – Windsor Park

The future of captain Steven Davis is once again in the spotlight (Brian Lawless/PA)

The end of another international campaign has once again raised the usual questions over how much longer captain Steven Davis will continue to play international football. The 36-year-old, who has 130 caps, said earlier this week he will take time to reflect over the winter before making any decisions, with no further competitive internationals until June.

New faces

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While there is always speculation over how long the old guard might stick around, Baraclough continues to introduce new faces to the squad. Goalkeeper Luke Southwood and 17-year-old Nottingham Forest striker Dale Taylor have both received their first call-ups this month, with Taylor already causing a stir with his performances in training. Baraclough will take it steady with the young talent, always eager to limit expectations, but said he would have no hesitation in throwing new players into the mix if needed.

Baraclough’s new deal

Ian Baraclough File Photo

Ian Baraclough has said his new deal has been agreed (Brian Lawless/PA)

It is almost three weeks since the Irish FA board voted unanimously to enter into talks on a new contract for Ian Baraclough, and a week since the 50-year-old said it would be signed “in the coming days”. Baraclough has said everything is agreed on the new deal with only the formalities to be completed, with results this weekend not part of the process.