NI Women wary of North Macedonia threat out in Skopje - Kenny Shiels
THE Republic of Ireland's men infamously 'Had a Macedonia' when they lost a qualifier for the 1998 World Cup 3-2 in Skopje. Northern Ireland's women will certainly not be complacent when they head to that same city for their own World Cup 2023 qualifier match this Thursday against the country now known as North Macedonia.
The hosts may be ranked 131st in the world, with only Andorra below them in Europe, but they already have one win in Group D - away to boot - so NI boss Kenny Shiels knows his side will need to be wary.
"Without a doubt they're way ahead of their ranking," he insisted. "They travelled and beat Latvia 4-1 and they've got three really good attacking players.
"One of them is fantastic - [Gentjana] Rochi, the number seven: a big, strong girl. The wee number 10 who plays behind her [the captain, Natasha Andonova], they've lots of good options. It will be tough."
The Macedonians did then lose 3-2 at home to Luxembourg, who had been beaten 4-0 in Larne by NI, while Latvia had also lost by that scoreline at Windsor Park, with those victories for the girls in green coming in the opening two rounds in September.
Shiels's side then 'only' picked up a point from their next two matches - but they were up against the section's two leading teams, England and Austria.
The English were made to work hard for their eventual 4-0 victory at Wembley, that game goalless until the 64th minute, while Austria needed a 90th minute equaliser to rescue a point in a dramatic 2-2 draw at Seaview, north Belfast.
Shiels felt that the latter result was a consequence of the former. Having gone 1-0 behind as the Austrians dominated the first half, NI scored two brilliant goals early in the second period, through Lauren Wade and superb Demi Vance free kick, before conceding that late leveller.
"We were comfortable, we really were," recalled Shiels, "but then we made a mistake - they were tired, the girls. We played Saturday evening away to England; Austria played Friday in a game they won comfortably [5-0 at home to Luxembourg].
"The game at Wembley involved a lot of mental stress - not in a bad way, but it was high profile, and that can be very tiring on the body as well as the mental tiredness.
"They gave a very brave performance [against England] and then went and did the same against Austria. When you consider everything the girls have been outstanding. They continue to, not surprise me but make me feel good with what they do."
Despite the initial disappointment of a draw that felt like a defeat, Shiels said that the squad have subsequently put that point and performance into a better perspective:
"The girls accepted that Austria were a really good team and they [Austria] got a break - we made a couple of mistakes in that attack. We couldn't run any more; another 15 minutes and they could have won considerably. We were glad to get ourselves off the pitch."
Now, though, they will head for North Macedonia ahead of the Thursday lunchtime game with optimism, but never arrogance: "Macedonia are a 'banana skin' for us; at this moment in time we are fighting with them to get third spot to improve our co-efficient.
"Obviously we harbour greater ambitions than that - but first we are thinking about sustaining third spot. If we can beat them that will put us in pole position for third - and then we will address trying to get second."
It might be tight, but Northern Ireland should prevail in the first part of this double-header against North Macedonia, with the return fixture at Seaview next Monday night.