Northern Ireland aiming to beat Belarus in second Euro 2020 qualifer
Euro 2020 qualifying group C: Northern Ireland v Belarus (Sunday, 7.45pm, Windsor Park)
THERE was a joie de vivre dans l'air the last time Northern Ireland hosted Belarus, just prior to Euro 2016, and hopes will be high again tomorrow night.
Another 3-0 win would be welcomed, but any victory will do to keep the dream alive of qualifying for the continental competition again.
Of course, the meaningful matches are likely to come later, this autumn, against Germany and the Netherlands, perhaps even much later, next spring potentially in the Nations League play-offs.
For now, though, Michael O'Neill's men must focus on collecting another three points after the comfortable 2-0 opening win over Estonia on Thursday evening.
Comfortable in the end, that is – after they opened the scoring 10 minutes into the second half through Niall McGinn.
Captain Steven Davis, who coolly converted the second goal from the penalty spot, got a rare 90 minutes under his belt following his recent loan move from Southampton to Rangers.
The skipper had to be disciplined up against a packed Estonian midfield and defence, but said: “I felt okay. It was a slightly different role for me. I have played it the last couple of internationals.
“I felt myself that I had to be patient and stay away from the ball. I wanted to drop a little deeper and get on it but I know what is needed from that role and I have to let Jonny [Evans] and Craig [Cathcart] build up a little bit.”
Patience may be required again from the entire home team tomorrow night. Belarus didn't concede any goals in their six Nations League matches, although admittedly those were against Luxembourg, Moldova, and San Marino. They also failed to score in both meetings with the Moldovans, so there is little to fear from a team ranked 76th in the world.
Ahead of ‘match-day two' O'Neill will have noted that Belarus managed eight shots in Rotterdam from 37 per cent of the possession, albeit only one of those was on target, compared to 10 (6) from their hosts. The visitors also forced five corners in de Kuip, with just three for the Dutch.
Belarus's chances of containing their opponents lasted less than a minute, though, ruined by a poor back-pass from the unfortunately-named Shitov and some awful hesitation from their goalkeeper, letting Memphis Depay nip in for the first of his two goals.
Liverpool midfielder 'Gini' Wijnaldum scored one and was fouled for the penalty converted by Depay, who also provided the late cross-shot headed in by Virgil van Dijk.
Indeed the Dutch dominance was such that they added that last goal despite playing the final 20 minutes with only 10 men after their final substitute, Kenny Tete, was quickly forced off due to a hamstring strain.
Northern Ireland aren't as good as the Netherlands, obviously, but they will still feel they can create and take chances against this Belarus team.
You never know with O'Neill's selections, but he's likely to stick by the same starting side, in the continued absence of Olly Norwood, Will Grigg (ankle), Gavin Whyte (thigh), and the versatile Corry Evans (hamstring), although veteran centre half Gareth McAuley is available after missing out on Thursday's squad due to a hamstring strain.
Josh Magennis made an impressive, forceful cameo at centre-forward for the last 15 minutes or so, although he should have scored at least one. Kyle Lafferty is likely to retain the starting role up front, having played a significant part in setting up the opening goal.
Paul Smyth could come on if some pace and zip are required in attack, but assistant boss Jimmy Nicholl commented yesterday: "You can make these decisions based on fitness levels but if you bring one out you've got to make sure the next one is going to contribute.
"We're not going to play them just because they're fresh. You've got to play them because they can do an equal job. I wouldn't like to think there'll be too many changes to be honest."
Davis obviously wants the return to winning ways to be maintained: “We have to build on the performance against Estonia and hopefully get off to a good start and win the game which would put us in a good position in the group.
“Everyone expects Holland and Germany to qualify from the group but you never know what will happen. We need to take care of each game as it comes along.
“Sunday is an important one for us. If we manage to start off the group with six points that will give us a real incentive for the games in June which tend to be difficult for us, especially away from home.
“We need to recover from this win and get the three points against Belarus and then we can look forward to June”.
Northern Ireland (probable): Peacock-Farrell; Dallas, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; McNair, Davis (capt.), Saville; McGinn, Lafferty, Jones.