They could not quite get the job done during the last round of internationals, but Northern Ireland will ensure their qualification for Euro 2016 if they can get the better of Greece at Windsor Park on Thursday.
On what eventually turned out to be a dramatic night in the first week of September, Michael O’Neill’s side found themselves a goal down at home to Hungary and down to 10 men, but Kyle Lafferty came good again to salvage a stoppage time point. While the striker is not enjoying any game time at club level with Norwich City, his record in this qualifying campaign is remarkable, and is a huge reason why the team finds itself in this incredible position.
The current situation in Group F sees the Northern Irish top of the pile with Romania just a point behind. That late equaliser against Hungary was telling, as it leaves them four points adrift rather than just the one, which lifts the pressure considerably. As for Greece, champions in 2004, they lie bottom with just three points, representing an amazing decline for a nation that produced its best ever performance in a World Cup a little over a year ago.
Goals were always hard to hard to come by, but in recent weeks the Greeks have proven themselves one of the most adept at negotiating their way through qualifying. Something was obviously wrong from the start when they lost to Finland, and since then things have gone from bad to worse with defeats home and away to the Faroe Islands, a malaise which has continued despite a change of manager.
So this game is all about the hosts, and they will be immensely confident of qualifying for a first major tournament for three decades. A tight, low-scoring encounter appears likely, but form suggests that the only thing that can stop Northern Ireland is their nerves. Lafferty is suspended, so cannot be called upon to produce another Roy of the Rovers contribution.
Chris Baird and Conor McLaughlin also miss out for the same reason, while Jonathan Evans was injured in West Bromwich Albion’s game at Crystal Palace on Saturday and has been forced to withdraw from the squad.
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