Northern Ireland may face Bosnia play-off behind closed doors

Bosnia and Herzegovina's Edin Dzeko (centre) won't be in action for his club Roma ahead of the scheduled play-off against Northern Ireland.

FAMILIAR and yet unfamiliar. Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill sprang no surprises in his squad selection to take on Bosnia & Herzegovina - but the match is likely to be played in unusual circumstances.

There’s an increasing likelihood that the match will be played behind closed doors in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus. That’s already the case for the other Euro 2020 play-off semi-final involving the Republic of Ireland away to Slovakia on the same date, Thursday March 26.

Local government in Sarajevo has banned all public gatherings of more than 250 people and although the match is in Zenica it is likely that other areas of BiH will follow the capital’s lead. Yesterday’s planned sale of tickets to home supporters was also postponed and a case of coronavirus has been confirmed in Zenica.

Despite that news, O'Neill said he would prepare his side as usual for what could prove his final match in charge if the result goes against them.

"It's not really my concern," O'Neill said. "Having been involved in international football for eight years I know you can have the best preparation in the world going into a game, but ultimately it's what happens in the week going into a game that matters most, whether down to play availability or whatever situation you're faced with.

"This is another situation that's not really in our control, so dwelling on it too much is not really beneficial.

"From our point of view the most important thing is our preparation, how we prepare to make sure we're ready to play on the Thursday night."

Such a scenario would surely come as a disappointment to Bosnia head coach Dušan Bajevi?, though, who had said at his squad announcement: “I believe that with the tremendous support from the stands, as we have always had before, we can win this match and pave the way for the finals and qualification [for Euro 2020].”

O'Neill admitted it could boost his side: "We played Bosnia in the Nations League and while it was a small stadium the atmosphere was very intimidating, very patriotic. From that point of view, for our sake, it is something slightly to our advantage."

O’Neill has selected an experienced 26-man panel, with midfielders Matthew Kennedy and Mark Sykes the only uncapped inclusions.

Sykes has been brought back into the squad and there are other attacking boosts with the return of Hearts striker Conor Washington and Rangers wideman Jordan Jones, both of them had been absent from international duty due to injury. Jones only came back to club action at the weekend, coming off the bench in the 1-0 SPL win at Ross County.

O’Neill has been giving game-time to Jordan Thompson at Stoke City after signing the midfielder from Blackpool during the January transfer window, while forwards Liam Boyce and Kyle Lafferty have been boosted by their moves to Hearts and Sunderland respectively.

A complicating factor for opponents Bosnia could be that several of their players are with clubs in Italy, where coronavirus levels have prompted a complete lockdown.

Notably they include star striker Edin Dzeko of Roma and midfield playmaker Miralem Pjanic of Juventus, as well as recalled goalkeeper Asmir Begovi?, now with AC Milan, and defender Ervin Zukanovi? of Ferrara club SPAL.

At the very least those players will have no competitive club action before the play-off due to the ban on Italian sport until at least April 3.

Bosnia & Herzegovina won the two meetings in the inaugural Nations League, 2-1 in Belfast and 2-0 in Sarajevo, but were fortunate to do so. Bajevic commented:

“We must not be fooled by the victories we have achieved in the Nations League; this is a completely different match and Northern Ireland is a good team and they can create problems for us.

“However, we have a huge ambition to qualify for the European Championship, and neither should Northern Ireland stop us on this journey, nor the fact that we will not have Kruni?, Luli?, Kolašinac and ?uric available.

“We were counting on them seriously, but I think we have the quality and that other players will do their best to make up for their absence. We have two weeks left until the gathering, and most importantly, everyone to be healthy.”

Northern Ireland squad (v Bosnia & Herzegovina, Euro 2020 play-off semi-final, Thursday March 26):

Goalkeepers: Michael McGovern, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Trevor Carson;

Defenders: Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, Conor McLaughlin, Jamal Lewis, Michael Smith, Tom Flanagan, Ciaron Brown;

Midfielders: Steven Davis, Niall McGinn, Stuart Dallas, Shane Ferguson, Paddy McNair, George Saville, Jordan Jones, Gavin Whyte, Jordan Thompson, Liam Donnelly, Matthew Kennedy, Mark Sykes;

Forwards: Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis, Liam Boyce, Conor Washington.

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