Northern Ireland preparations hit by injuries to Boyce and Jones
NORTHERN Ireland’s attacking options have been depleted further for Thursday night’s friendly against Luxembourg – and the home Euro 2020 qualifier against Germany next Monday.
Liam Boyce looks almost certain to miss both matches due a hamstring problem sustained in his club Burton Albion’s win over Bristol Rovers while Jordan Jones left Ibrox on crutches after injuring himself in the rash challenge which earned him a red card against Celtic.
Linfield’s Shayne Lavery had already been called up to the senior squad after confusion over initial claims about his inclusion; he replaced Paul Smyth, who was ruled out due to injury.
Without Boyce, that now leaves Lavery alongside only Josh Magennis and Conor Washington, although NI manager Michael O’Neill does have a range of attacking options in midfield, including the returning Niall McGinn, Stuart Dallas, Shane Ferguson, and Gavin Whyte, while the recalled Liam Donnelly netted yet again for Motherwell.
Burton boss Nigel Clough confirmed that Boyce is a major doubt, saying: “Liam did his hamstring, so there was no chance of him continuing.
“I don't know how long he’ll be out for, we’ll get him scanned, but it will be a few weeks, I’d have thought.”
There is also a concern over right-back Michael Smith, who missed Hearts’ home draw with Hamilton Academical. Jam Tarts’ boss Craig Levein explained: “Michael’s had quite a few muscle injuries so he’s quite good at recognising where he is in his recovery. I didn’t think he’d make this game but I thought he’d definitely be available for the Motherwell game in a couple of weeks’ time.”
Those injuries add to the preparation difficulties facing O’Neill as the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign enters its much more difficult second half for his team.
Germany may not be quite the force they once were while Luxembourg are better than most may think, but Northern Ireland’s next two opponents will still present two very different challenges.
O’Neill would have preferred no game at all – but teams have to play on an international date.
Failing that, stronger opposition might have been preferable than the team currently ranked 91st in the world (and 39th out of the 55 Uefa sides) as preparation ahead of hosting the Germans, who are ranked 15th (ninth on the European scene).
However, with the Euro 2020 qualification process resuming on Thursday night, the same date as Luxembourg will play in Windsor Park, a game had to take place and perhaps weaker opposition is now a blessing in disguise given the strains on the home squad’s strength.
O’Neill is happy to have a home game: “The nature of UEFA means that you have to take the game. Obviously when you come to qualification games there are not a lot of teams available to take a friendly, because most are playing in the qualification process.
“So what I wanted primarily was a home friendly, I didn’t want to have to take the team away, so we are here for nine days.”
He also pointed out that this week’s match will help his squad and team, particularly in terms of the first name on the team-sheet:
“Our focus is obviously on the Germany game but the Luxembourg game will give us an opportunity to give minutes to players who need them.
“For example, of you look at the goalkeeping situation, none of them [Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Michael McGovern, and Trevor Carson] are playing any football at this moment in time.
“Maybe the other players who aren’t playing much, the likes of Corry [Evans] has been on the bench for Blackburn, although he played in the [League] Cup; George [Saville] has been a bit in and out with Middlesbrough as well.
“All of those things are important in terms of the preparation of the team for the Monday night [Germany game]. Equally, you want to put out as strong a team as possible on the Thursday night [against Luxembourg]. You have to prepare the team and you want to build.
“Those that come in, it’s an opportunity for players like Shane Ferguson and Conor McLaughlin, who have not had much game-time in this campaign so far, it gives them an opportunity to show what they are capable of”.