Northern Ireland will hope the visit of San Marino to Windsor Park on Saturday is the opportunity they need to end their long losing run in Euro 2024 qualifying.
Here, the PA news agency looks at the key talking points ahead of the game.
Back to the start
Northern Ireland’s win away to San Marino in the opening fixture of this qualifying campaign back in March feels a long, long time ago now. Back then optimism was high that the return of Michael O’Neill as manager and what was seen as a favourable draw, certainly from pot five, in Group H could offer Northern Ireland a chance of challenging for qualification. But since their 2-0 win in Serravalle, nothing has gone right for O’Neill and his players, as a seemingly never-ending injury list and a string of narrow 1-0 defeats has doomed this campaign.
A must-win game
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) October 13, 2023
Qualification is now beyond them but the visit of San Marino is a must-win game for Northern Ireland, who have the opportunity to reset the narrative of this campaign and deliver a performance in front of the Windsor Park crowd. Even with their problems, anything short of a victory at home against the traditional whipping boys of European football would nudge a struggling team towards a crisis.
Northern Ireland have enjoyed few home comforts of late – winning only two of their last 17 fixtures in Belfast – but after the logistical challenges of last month’s away doubleheader against Slovenia and Kazakhstan, back-to-back games at Windsor is a welcome reprieve and a chance for O’Neill to get more work done with his players in the absence of long transfers. There is also a pressure of expectation from the sell-out crowd heading to Saturday’s match, but the players already expect nothing but a win anyway.
Since O’Neill announced his squad for these fixtures, much of the buzz has been around the return to the senior squad for West Ham striker Callum Marshall. The 18-year-old was denied a dream international debut by VAR in June when his late equaliser against Denmark in Copenhagen was ruled out for offside, but is now expected to get another chance in green against San Marino. Northern Ireland have been desperately seeking a reliable finisher for several years and although O’Neill is reluctant to put pressure on the teenager, many have already compared Marshall to record goal-scorer David Healy.
— Irish FA (@IrishFA) October 10, 2023
This might be the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign but after UEFA confirmed this week that the 2028 edition will be hosted by the United Kingdom and Ireland, there has been talk all week of Northern Ireland potentially getting the opportunity to play on home soil in five years’ time. O’Neill is about the only person not keen to get involved – he has more pressing concerns as he tries to mould a young squad into one that might be more competitive by then – but there is now a massive carrot dangling for Northern Ireland’s players. “It’s a big thing that’s going to be coming here, it’s fantastic,” said the 35-year-old Jonny Evans. “Who knows? I might still be knocking about.”