Windsor Park showdown: the key issues
Northern Ireland resume their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign on Monday night with a fixture against Germany at Windsor Park.
Here the PA news agency takes a look at five key talking points going into the match.
Celebrations were kept to a minimum as Northern Ireland took 12 points from 12 to open their qualifying campaign. It was, after all, the basic requirement from their meetings with Estonia and Belarus. Now come the decisive matches against Germany and Holland. Assuming Germany and Holland also take maximum points from the other teams in the group, Northern Ireland either need to take four points off one nation or a win against both and hope goal difference stands in their favour. Holland’s win over Germany on Friday night did Michael O’Neill’s men no favours, as a Germany win would have meant a single win over the Dutch would have put them through.
Big test for the new crop
O’Neill was happy to sacrifice results in last year’s Nations League in order to renew his squad with younger players. The likes of Jamal Lewis, Bailey Peacock-Farrell and others stepped up their role in the team in place of experienced campaigners like Chris Brunt, Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley. The rewards have been seen in the wins over Estonia and Belarus but Germany represent an altogether different test for a squad carrying far less experience than the one that reached Euro 2016.
Thursday night’s 1-0 win over Luxembourg, secured via a horror own goal from Kevin Malget, will not live long in the memory for anyone other than the three youngsters – Ciaron Brown, Ethan Galbraith and Alfie McCalmont – who made their international debuts. But it did at least serve to extend Northern Ireland’s winning streak to five, crucial in maintaining the belief within O’Neill’s squad.
Injuries take a bite
O’Neill said his squad now has a clean bill of health after Burton forward Liam Boyce came through training on Sunday morning unscathed. However, defender Callum Morris has returned to Ross County with the injury that ruled him out of Thursday’s friendly, joining Jordan Jones, Michael Smith and Paul Smyth in withdrawing from O’Neill’s original squad.
A record night for Davis
O’Neill joked that captain Steven Davis had pestered him all week for a five-minute cameo against Luxembourg, and after the manager “wilted under extreme pressure”, the Rangers midfielder now stands to break Aaron Hughes’ caps record for an outfield player. Monday’s game will be Davis’ 113th appearance for Northern Ireland, leaving him six shy of Pat Jennings’ record for any Northern Ireland player. “I believe he will go on and break Pat Jennings’ record,” O’Neill said. “He’s still as effective at this level as he was when I took the job seven years ago. Whenever he does hang up his boots, hopefully after I’ve left the job, he’ll be remembered as one of the best players we’ve had.”