Hope springs eternal for Michael O'Neill and Northern Ireland
Uefa Nations League B, Group 3: Northern Ireland v Bosnia & Herzegovina (Windsor Park, 2pm today)
MICHAEL O'Neill joked that hope is “all I've got” - but despite the absence of three experienced defenders the hosts can be rightly optimistic against Bosnia & Herzegovina in this afternoon's Uefa Nations League opener.
Northern Ireland will have to deal with Roma star Edin Dzeko and company without the retired Chris Brunt, the injured Aaron Hughes, and the not-match-fit new Glasgow Ranger Gareth McAuley.
However, with English Premier League defenders Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart – the latter out-scoring World Cup Golden Boot Harry Kane last weekend – there's no reason to fear a new-look visiting outfit.
Their coach Robert Prosinecki, the former Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Real Madrid midfielder, was in confident mood yesterday, saying that he expects not only victory today but also qualification for Euro 2020:
"Northern Ireland are a really good team. I was here with Azerbaijan and we lost that match [4-0] - but we have a good team with great players and we expect to win…”, later adding: “I expect to qualify for the Euros."
NI have plenty of reasons for a similarly upbeat mood, though, even if O'Neill chuckled when asked if hope was enough:
“It's all I've got! I would love certainty, but we don't have it so it's all I've got at the end of the day.
“We can't manufacture players. We have two routes to find players: they either come through, develop and are born here, or we find them through eligibility. They're the two routes to strengthen the depth we have.
“But when I look outside we have 26 players – unfortunately Aaron has gone back [with recurrence of a calf injury] so that's 25 – and outside of those players there aren't any making a big enough impact with their clubs to merit being part of the squad at this minute in time.
“But that number of players outside the squad, I could count them on my two hands. It's not like we have 20 or 30 players on the periphery of things.
“The opportunity will be there for the younger players if they do emerge... There's always hope. Young players give you hope.
“We've seen Paul Smyth and Gavin Whyte come in. There is no induction period for those lads with Northern Ireland, you need to be ready to play…but at this minute I'm clinging on to hope”.