Northern Ireland boss O'Neill hoping for 'very exciting' team against Bosnia & Herzegovina
Uefa Nations League B, Group 3: Northern Ireland v Bosnia & Herzegovina (Windsor Park, 2pm today)
KYLE Lafferty may have been carrying around a cardboard cut-out of Michael O’Neill yesterday but there’s plenty of life in the manager and his Northern Ireland squad yet.
Similarly, while ‘Young Turks’ may be a term that originated early last century, young players, including some with Turkish clubs, are among those that Bosnia & Herzegovina hope will earn them a first ever qualification for the Euros.
O’Neill laughed off Lafferty’s larking about with his replica, quipping: “It wasn’t life-size anyway. It wouldn’t be my choice to have cardboard cut-outs of myself around the stadium, believe me.”
However, there may be a statue of him erected if he secures back-to-back qualification for the European Championships – and he is sanguine about the absence of key players Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt, who have combined for a few goals in the past:
“Much has been made of that side of our game and how much we utilise set-pieces, we’ve never hidden the fact that we do value them and out work on them. But we have other people who can deliver the ball.
“Gareth’s situation has meant that this game realistically is too soon for him to be involved. But we have other aspects to our game and it’s not just a case of trying to replace two players. It’s how we compensate for that as a team.
“I know the team I’m going to play. I see parts of it that are very exciting and hopefully we see parts of that [today].”
There are unlikely to be too many personnel changes, probably young Jamal Lewis in at left-back for Brunt after the latter’s international retirement.
Leeds goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell has been mooted for a first senior start, which would confirm his switch of allegiance from his native England despite recent approaches from them, but O’Neill typically kept his cards close to his chest:
“[Eligibility] iss always a factor but I’ll pick the goalkeeper that I think deserves to play. At the end of the day I don’t think we’ll lose Bailey. He’s committed to us.
“But it’s a competitive game, the start of a new tournament. The goalkeeper that is chosen is the goalkeeper I think deserves to play.” That may well be Lewis’s clubmate Michael McGovern, despite the latter’s lack of action at club level.
O’Neill is certainly confident about the experienced players he still has at the back, despite being without 38-year-olds McAuley and Aaron Hughes (injured), and Brunt.
Watford’s Craig Cathcart could come up against Roma centre-forward Edin Dzeko, who has netted 52 international goals in 93 appearances. “Craig has played for us in massive games in the past,” said O’Neill.
“The last campaign was a little bit frustrating for him because of injury, but when he’s fit, he’s in our team, it’s as simple of that.
“In my time he’s been a mainstay of the team, whether that’s in a back three with Gareth and Jonny, or a two. It’s great to have him back. He’s playing very well in a team that’s started the season extremely well so that helps. Mentally he’s coming into the squad in a good place.
“When I look at my centre-backs and the games we’ve played in recent years, they’ve played against some, if not all, of the top centre-forwards in Europe, so they’re well equipped to deal with a player of Dzeko’s quality. These are challenges they look forward to and this is another opportunity.”
Bosnia & Herzegovina coach Robert Prosinecki may look to Konyaspor midfielder Deni Milosevic and Basaksehir forward Riad Bajic to offer creative and scoring support to Dzeko, although Juventus’s summer signing from Roma, Miralem Pjanic, is their main playmaker.
At the back, the visitors don’t have Bournemouth goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, so Ibrahmic Sehic of Erzurumspor should continue in nets. Also absent is Arsenal’s versatile defender Sead Kolasinac (knee injury), while Red Bull Salzburg right-back Darko Todorovic is suspended, and left-back Bojan Nastic is doubtful (calf).
O’Neill has already got the better of Prosinecki twice, with wins over his Azerbaijan charges in the World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign, but isn’t expecting as easy a victory as the 4-0 at Windsor that time:
“We expect Prosinecki to have the same approach as he had with Azerbaijan - but with better players. We expect an open game. Bosnia will play, they have a lot of fluency in their team, and good midfield players.”
Where Northern Ireland may have advantages is in attacking options and in terms of experience, but O’Neill pointed out: “Experience is valuable, but when you come in as a new coach and there’s transition in your squad, they are his players, so they’ll be out to prove something.
“It’s an exciting time for them. They’ve missed out narrowly on the finals of the last two competitions and under a new coach they will be eager to prove they are capable of having a good Nations League and then qualification for the Euros.
“We’re expecting a tough game but, with the preparation we’ve had, we’re ready for it”.
Northern Ireland (probable): McGovern; C McLaughlin, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; Norwood, Davis, Saville; Ward, Magennis, Dallas.