Football/Soccer

5 Talking Points on Northern Ireland World Cup qualifier against San Marino

Jonny Evans has been the subject of transfer speculation as Northern Ireland prepare to take on San Marino on Friday

Northern Ireland begin a World Cup qualification double-header in San Marino knowing they may have a chance to seize second place in Group C on Monday.

Michael O'Neill's side own a four-point advantage and entertain nearest challengers Czech Republic on Monday, by which time the race for second should be much clearer.

Here, Press Association Sport assesses the talking points ahead of their first clash in San Marino on Friday night...

HOW WILL THE IN-DEMAND JONNY EVANS FARE?

All the chatter this week has been around key central defender Jonny Evans and a transfer saga that has rolled on to deadline day.

Manchester City, Leicester and Arsenal have all been interested in the Baggies captain but Evans boarded the flight to San Marino on Thursday morning with uncertainty still hanging over his head.

By the time he takes to the field on Friday, his future will be resolved one way or another, and it will be fascinating to see if all the talk has had any mental impact on a player team-mate Tom Flanagan this week called "the most relaxed man I've ever played football with".

A GLUT OF ATTACKING OPTIONS?

Too often in this campaign and the previous one, O'Neill has been relying on strikers who have not been playing for their club sides. This time it is different.

Kyle Lafferty has been rejuvenated since moving to Hearts, scoring five already,

QPR's Conor Washington and Charlton's Josh Magennis both have two apiece and even fourth-choice Shay McCartan opened his account for Bradford before joining up with his country.

For once, O'Neill has a welcome attacking headache.

HOW WILL O'NEILL COPE WITHOUT McAULEY AND CATHCART?

The strength of this Northern Irish team has been a defence that has often featured three Premier League regulars in Evans, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart.

But only Evans, yet to play a club match this term due to a nagging hamstring issue, is available to O'Neill in San Marino.

The microstate may not provide the sternest test but O'Neill has to consider whether he hands a first competitive appearance to Burton's Tom Flanagan, or risks deploying 37-year-old Aaron Hughes when he also needs 90 minutes from him three days later against the Czechs.

WILL THE SAN MARINESE POSE ANY REAL THREAT?

On paper there should be little to fear of a nation ranked 204th in the world, one that has never won a competitive game in their entire history.

Yet in the return meeting last October, three of Northern Ireland's four goals in Belfast came in the closing 11 minutes against a side that played virtually the entire second half with 10 men.

Goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini was a frustrating force that night and - if he is on song again - it may not be as straightforward as O'Neill's side would like.

CAN THE NORTHERN IRISH GET HELP FROM ELSEWHERE ON FRIDAY?

By the time Czech Republic arrive in Belfast over the weekend, Northern Ireland will know just how close they are to sealing second spot in the group.

The Czechs face the unenviable task of entertaining runaway leaders Germany on Friday while Azerbaijan, whose chances of securing second are slimmer still, visit an improving Norway.

If Czech Republic lose, the Azeris do not win and the Northern Irish triumph on Friday night, a draw against the Czechs on Monday would be enough to secure second, and a possible play-off place, for O'Neill's team.

 

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