Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland will do well to add Swiss to September scalps

Northern Ireland players training to take on Switzerland in tonight's World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park.

World Cup 2022 European qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland v Switzerland (Windsor Park, 7.45pm)

IN the week of anniversaries of famous victories over Spain and England adding Switzerland to that list of scalps would be an admirable achievement for Northern Ireland.

The Spanish only put the Swiss out of Euro 2020 after a penalty shootout, with Vladimir Petkovic's side having ousted World Cup-holders France in the same fashion to reach that quarter-final.

New Switzerland boss Murat Yakin, the former defensive star, has started well, with a 2-1 friendly win over Greece and a goalless draw in last week's qualifier against European champions Italy, admittedly both in his hometown of Basel.

That was where Northern Ireland's dream of reaching the last World Cup ended, after a 0-0 following a controversial home defeat in the two-legged play-off, but both manager Ian Baraclough and captain Steven Davis insisted all that was far in the past.

The future looks brighter for the hosts with young players having impressed in the 4-1 qualifier win in Lithuania and the 1-0 weekend friendly victory over Estonia - indeed the present is promising, says Baraclough:

"I think we're a team that's on the up. We're still trying to develop, we're still trying to put things in place for further down the line. But there's no reason in the here and now that we can't compete with a good Switzerland side. A good result for us puts us in a good position for the rest of the group."

Even a one-goal win would move NI into second spot on goals scored and both Conor Washington (penalty) and Shayne Lavery scored in Vilnius, making light of the absence of Josh Magennis and Liam Boyce. Dion Charles also looked lively in Tallinn.

On the downside, Paddy McNair, who also netted from the spot against Lithuania, is suspended, making it difficult to play Bara's favoured three centre-backs formation with Jonny Evans not here.

Sunderland's Tom Flanagan could come in, or the system might change, with Baraclough saying: "You can't be a one-trick pony. I tend to start with a three at the back but I also have players who are more than happy in a four at the back.

"We can load the midfield areas, we can put three strikers up or two, we can play with wide men - that's why you pick squad players and players who can fill certain areas.

"We also have wide players who have had to play up top at times and wing-back at times; they understand their roles because we work on stuff like that so you can make changes during a game.

"There is no reason why we can't change how we play as well to get the better of certain things and we've also proved we can play in two or three systems and change that quite fluidly and the lads go and deal with it."

Despite the selection difficulties, Baraclough responded to the suggestion that this is a 'must-not-lose' game with a smile, replying:

"You know you won't get any negativity from me. For me, I'm looking at winning the game. If we can win the game, great. If it doesn't happen for us, if we come away with a point, then we live to fight another day as well.

"I think there are a lot of twists and turns to come from this group. Bulgaria have shown they're no pushovers, don't concede too many goals at all - Italy saw that. There's no reason why Italy or Switzerland can't drop points elsewhere. We just have to put ourselves in a position to be able to capitalise on that, if and when it happens."

The Swiss were without big names Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka against Italy - the latter having contracted Covid - but Baraclough pointed out: "I look at their squad depth and it's pretty impressive. I know the players they brought in and they are still strong. Many of them play in the German Bundesliga."

Although there have been complaints about ticket prices, with the 16,000 available not sold out, Davis believes the crowd will boost the hosts:

"I think certainly in our case it's a massive benefit to have them back in. We've seen previously the impact they can have and the results we have had here to make it a real fortress.

"It's a massive bonus to have them back and we're excited about it, they'll be excited to be back as well. I'm sure they'll create a tremendous atmosphere as well."

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Football/Soccer