NI manager Michael O'Neill wary of yellow peril in Oslo
World Cup 2018 Qualifying Group D: Norway v Northern Ireland (Sunday, 7.45pm, live on Sky Sports Football and Main Event)
NO sportsman likes having the label ‘yellow’ attached to him but it’s not the courage of certain Northern Ireland players that is the concern this weekend.
Six players in particular will be hoping that NI are guaranteed a place in the play-offs before tomorrow night’s match.
Skipper Steven Davis, Josh Magennis, Jonny and Corry Evans, Olly Norwood, and Stuart Dallas have all collected yellow cards previously in this campaign.
Rather farcically, a second booking in this 10th group game would rule the victim/culprit out of the play-off first leg, if NI get to that stage.
Prior to the Germany game, manager Michael O’Neill said that “Our squad isn’t strong enough to put a team out and leave out five or six players who are on bookings.”
However, that approach may alter if results in other groups ensure a play-off place – although even then there would be the seedings situation to consider.
As O’Neill said yesterday, “Once those games are played [last night and tonight] the focus on our game heightens at that point.”
He’s not pondering permutations too much, admitting: “It’s very difficult to really see. There are so many factors and so many teams that can play a part in it.
“When it gets to that point the main thing is to focus on ourselves. The most some of the other second-placed teams can get to is 13 points, so it would then become a goal difference type of thing.
“I don’t think 13 points is going to miss out on the points total, but it might miss out on goal difference, which is the next thing they consider. Then they consider goals scored and fair play points…
“You would have to be extremely unlucky to miss out with 13 points but it is a possibility so we have to approach it with the mind-set that we need more than that.”
Given that all six are likely starters, with four of them key players, it’s a selection tightrope for manager Michael O’Neill.
Davis has just missed three of O’Neill’s half-century of games in charge, only one of those a competitive fixture, Romania away in November 2014, making 44 starts. His midfield partner Norwood has featured in 44 of those, with 41 starts, and those two are vital to protecting the defence and launching attacks.
All but Dallas started against Germany, but it’s hard to say whether or not worries over missing the game in Oslo affected any home performances; there’s little point in charging into tackles against the technically superb World Cup holders.
A little point tomorrow night would secure a play-off place – but three would boost the hopes of being seeded in the play-offs, which is a tight race too, as O’Neill knows:
“There’s a lot of teams around that 17 to 23 [Fifa world] ranking mark. We’re in the middle of that. It’s not something that we’ve given a huge amount of thought to.
“It’s a little out of your control – you have to get results, but seeding also depends on other teams’ results.
“It would be fantastic for us. Our objective is to make sure we are in play-offs, if by other means, other teams losing, us gathering points… for us to be seeded would be an amazing achievement.
“We’re still in the situation where we believe we need something to control our own destiny and that is the main focus for us… and hopefully the rankings will be kind to us if we are in one of the eight spots.”
Norway, even with nothing to play for in terms of qualification, won’t be feeling kind towards their visitors – and they should feel fresher after the respective matches on Thursday, with Lars Lagerback’s side 8-0 winners away to San Marino.
Having lost 2-0 in Belfast, conceding a very early goal to Jamie Ward and then Conor Washington netting, they will want revenge, and to improve their seeding for future qualification campaigns.
Northern Ireland were comfortable in the Belfast meeting, although taking a second minute lead always helps – as going a goal down at that time against Germany showed.
Norway are not near the level of the World Cup holders, however, and Michael O’Neill and his men will surely look back to the seven clean sheets they have kept in this campaign, with only the Germans having found a way past them.
If they’re needed to play, the elder Evans will marshall the defence alongside Gareth McAuley, while younger brother Corry, Davis, and especially Norwood will work hard at protecting that rearguard.
The goal threat comes not only from Magennis; Kyle Lafferty showed some nice touches against Germany and Washington came off the bench to strike the bar, while the dead ball deliveries of Chris Brunt are always a potent threat.
There’s speculation that Bournemouth striker Josh King, who scored two early goals for Norway in Serravalle, may be injured but, with or without him, and perhaps without some of their own top players, Northern Ireland should be good enough to get what they need to be in the play-offs draw.