Northern Ireland women out to reach Euro 2022 play-off
Women's Euro 2020 qualifiers, Group C: Northern Ireland v Faroe Islands (Seaview, 7pm)
A HOME win against the Faroe Islands to reach the play-offs may seem like finishing to an empty net but Northern Ireland women's boss Kenny Shiels has hailed their achievement in even getting to this position.
The north only have one player with an English Women's Super League club – and Simone Magill of Everton missed Friday night's crucial 3-2 home win over Belarus due to injury and is again absent.
Shiels has brought in a more attacking, front foot style of play but pointed out: "You can't play with that high intensity press for long periods in a game. You can if you're full-time professionals but our girls are playing in the Irish League; it's showing great support to us but it's not full-time professional.
"We had one player in the English Premier League and in this group Wales have got everybody, they just go across the border and play for Reading, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City.
"Those are the players we've competed against while we've had players from Glentoran, Linfield, Crusaders, Cliftonville, Sion Swifts – a village – playing against that status of players.
"We're on the cusp of going into the qualifiers, which is remarkable. We've won three competitive games on the bounce for the first time ever."
The first of those was the first under Shiels, the 6-0 win out in the Faroes, coming after two 6-0 defeats by Norway and two draws with Wales.
Crucially those were 2-2 away and 0-0 in Belfast, with those away goals giving NI the edge head-to-head against the Welsh in the group.
The back-to-back wins against Belarus were impressive and important too, though. In terms of results, Shiels will be happy to have history repeat itself with another win over the Faroes: "We've duplicated everything so far…now we have to complete the set."
Unfortunately the hosts lost another key player on Friday, the versatile Demi Vance of Rangers forced off with what turned out to be an ACL injury, having played on the left of a back three.
At least the experience Sarah McFadden, also able to play in defence or midfield, is available for selection after sitting out Friday night, as is goalkeeper Jacqui Burns after her red card out in Belarus.
Up front the hosts will again look for goals from Liverpool's Rachel Furness, who netted from the penalty spot on Friday, and Kirsty McGuinness, who opened the scoring then forced the own goal winner.
Shiels warned that the Faroes have been improving, with both Wales and Belarus having had to work much harder to see off the islanders than first time around.
The Faroese have been helped by coronavirus having far less impact on their society, says Shiels: "They've had zero [Covid] deaths in the Faroes, they've played right through, and they're getting better and better… We've got to prepare for that and we have to make sure we're better than them again.
"We'll come out of the blocks again, I hope… You want to hit the ground running and make them feel intimidated."
The hosts will have to deal with high expectation, but Shiels lauded their mental strength in Friday night's tense win: "The situations here and out in Belarus were quite demanding of their character and they brought out their characteristics immensely to get themselves into a position – I nearly said 'over the line', which isn't right. They've got us into a position where we've got one game at home and we have to win it. The mentality is unbelievable, and the commitment levels…
"They've come all this way to get to a pinnacle, they're on the cusp of getting to the play-offs – and they'll deliver. I'm really confident that they can deliver."
Somewhat strangely, Wales's match against Belarus kicks off 10 minutes later tonight, at Rodney Parade in Newport – but Northern Ireland should seal second spot without having to worry about such anomalies.
Shiels concluded with what amounted to a declaration of victory: "There's no alternative for us. Not winning is not an option. It's not an option."
* The Republic of Ireland women's team will probably have to pull off a huge shock against Germany this evening (5pm) if they are to secure the runners-up slot in Group I.
Vera Pauw's side are in second spot, a point above Ukraine, but are likely to be overtaken by them as they host table-proppers Montenegro. Even if Ukraine only get a point they would finish above Ireland on a head-to-head basis on away goals, so the hosts have to take something off the Germans at Tallaght Stadium.
Germany won the reverse fixture 3-0 in Essen and although they have already qualified, scoring 43 goals in seven matches and conceding none, it's unlikely that the team ranked second in the world will slip up.
However, defender Louise Quinn insisted: “The motivation is there and has been from the start. We always knew this game could be the one that takes us to the Euros or not and confidence is high...
“This squad puts 100 per cent into everything we do and that is incredibly important and that's why it is an honour to be playing in this team.
“It's been a real journey and something real special with this squad and a pleasure. We went through a transition of change in many ways and we have made such progress."