Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland aiming to grasp Euro prize against Slovakia

Northern Ireland training ahead of the Euro 2020/21 Play-Off Final against Slovakia at Windsor Park.
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Nations League Path B/ Euro play-off Final: Northern Ireland v Slovakia (Windsor Park, 7.45pm)

LIKE poor men grasping at an unexpected pot of gold, Northern Ireland and Slovakia will be desperate not to let tonight's priceless opportunity slip through their sweaty palms.

There will surely be nerves, and errors too. Two teams out of form, the hosts winless at home in a competitive match since March of last year, the visitors unable to win on their travels since September 2019.

Luckily for both, a win is not required, at least not in normal time, not even in extra time.

It may be a penalty shoot-out again, the way both got here.

Neither team can be confident of winning, but nor should either be fearful of their opponents.

The Republic of Ireland created half a dozen chances out in Slovakia but couldn't take any of them, not helped by young attackers Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah being harshly ruled out late on as 'close contacts' of someone who had tested positive for coronavirus.

A matter of inches made the difference with those two and fine margins are likely to separate these two teams tonight.

The Fifa rankings have Slovakia 37th and NI 41st – in Uefa terms, they're 21st and 23rd. Such status suggests one of them just about merits a place at the 24-team tournament next summer.

Northern Ireland can argue that they had to contend with a much tougher qualifying group, including Germany and the Netherlands, while the Slovaks finished third behind Croatia and Wales.

What's more, the Republic's standing as one of the 12 tournament hosts meant that they were moved out of that tough Group C, with Northern Ireland dropped into it.

Yet it's all about what happens tonight.

Slovakia have players from bigger clubs, including Inter Milan central defender Milan Skriniar and Napoli midfielder Stanislav Lobotka, both of whom were forced to sit out the fortunate semi-final win over the Republic of Ireland for covid-related reasons.

They also boast Marek Hamsik, who spent more than a decade with Napoli, scoring 100 Serie goals, before moving to China in early 2019. Now 33, he's still a key man for the Slovaks, ably assisted in midfield by Juraj Kucka of Parma.

Both sides struggle for goals, Slovakia's hopes not helped by injury to 20-year-old Feyenoord forward Robert Bosenkik, so Ondrej Duda of Cologne could be their central attacker.

Northern Ireland do have options up front, and Conor Washington and Liam Boyce have been finding the net, although Josh Magennis is a more likely starter than the latter, with target man Kyle Lafferty in contention too.

Corry Evans would have been a probable in midfield but he's hamstrung, which might nudge the formation towards 5-3-2, playing to the attacking strengths of Stuart Dallas and Jamal Lewis as wing-backs. Daniel Ballard would be the most likely third centre half. The return to fitness, and action, of Leicester City's Jonny Evans is a huge boost.

However, given Slovakia's quality in midfield, and their reduced attacking choices, Baraclough may beef up his own central third with young Jordan Thompson in there, or push Dallas forward and include Conor McLaughlin at right-back.

Slovakia somewhat surprisingly sacked Pavel Hapal as defeats to Scotland and Israel in the Nations League followed that shoot-out success against Ireland, replacing him with Stefan Tarkovic, assistant to previous boss Jan Kozak.

New managers tend to promise a "different" team, largely meaning in terms of approach but Tarkovic could effect plenty of personnel changes too.

There are so many question marks over Slovakia's selection, although not necessarily in a bad way. The goalkeeping jersey is up for grabs with Newcastle United's Martin Dubravka out injured, and Skriniar, plus possibly 35-year-old centre/left-back Tomas Hubocan, may not be the only alterations in the backline, with options in both full-back positions.

Lobotka could come into midfield, while up front they may continue with a 'false nine' in Ondrej Duda or go with a traditional centre-forward like Michal Duris.

Slovakia lost on their first visit to Belfast, in March 1998, to a Steve Lomas goal, with their midfield including the appropriately named Samuel Slovak, now also part of their management team. Lawrie McMenemy was the home boss.

Eleven years later the Slovaks won 2-0 at Windsor Park in a World Cup qualifier, with Vladimir Weisses on the pitch and on the bench, son and father respectively. That took them a step closer to reaching South Africa 2010.

Another 11 years on, the hope is that another English manager can secure another home win – even in extra time or on penalties.

Ian Baraclough has already guided his side through those scenarios in Sarajevo, seeing off an over-confident Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Slovakia haven't been making such noises, understandably given that their results have been disappointing over the past couple of years. Their last competitive win in normal time came almost a year ago, 2-0 at home to Azerbaijan.

Northern Ireland's last such victory is even further back in June 2019, the 1-0 win in Belarus, with six defeats and three draws (including the 1-1 before penalties in Sarajevo) since then.

There's so much riding on this match.

Both might still have struggled in their Nations League groups anyway, but these play-offs have undoubtedly been the main focus.

As it stands, both look likely to be relegated to League C for the next iteration of the Nations League, with consequent adverse effects on their rankings and seedings for future qualification.

The pots for the 2022 World Cup draw will be based on the Fifa World rankings after this month's results, so a win tonight would help in that regard too. Norway and Romania, both in NI's Nations League section, are right behind them in the rankings. Slovakia are just outside the top 20, so any elevation would put them into Pot 2 rather than Pot 3.

Yet the Nations League, even the World Cup, are for other days and nights.

This evening Northern Ireland must try to seize the prize of a place at Euro 2020/21.

Northern Ireland (possible): Peacock-Farrell; C Mclaughlin, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; Dallas, Davis (capt.), McNair, Saville; McGinn, Washington.

Slovakia (possible): Rodak; Pekarik, Skriniar, Valjent, Hubocan; Kucka, Lobotka, Hamsik; Rusnak, Duda, Mak.

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Football/Soccer