Northern Ireland are still yet to taste victory under Michael O’Neill and face a difficult task of securing their first win under the new boss with a trip to Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo will captain his side and win his 100th cap in the process, hopefully toasting that with a much-needed victory.
Portugal were beaten 1-0 by Russia on Friday and that result leaves them three points behind Fabio Capello’s side with three fixtures played. Paulo Bento has only seen his Portugal side win two of their four home games in 2012 and will be hoping that what is on paper a routine fixture against Northern Ireland will not provide the possibility of a banana skin.
Bento has injury worries with Fabio Coentrao ruled out with a groin problem suffered 20 minutes into the 1-0 defeat in Moscow. Real Betis’ Nelson will deputise for the Real Madrid left-back and Bento will also have to find a replacement for Raul Meireles, who picked up an injury in training. Ruben Micael is expected to start alongside Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso in a three-man midfield.
Northern Ireland face a daunting trip to the Estadio do Dragao and that was before the injuries and suspensions they have suffered. O’Neill is without West Brom defender Gareth McAuley, who is ruled out through suspension after picking up two yellow cards already during qualifying. Injuries have ruled out McAuley’s club teammate Chris Brunt and Newcastle’s Shane Ferguson.
O’Neill’s side only have one point from their opening two games, having lost their opener against Russia and then conceding a late equaliser to Luxembourg at Windsor Park. Northern Ireland have conceded an average of three goals per game under O’Neill and have yet to keep a clean sheet, so the only solace Northern Irish fans have is the 1-1 draw they achieved in 2005 last time these two sides faced each other.
That game was at Windsor Park, so a trip to Portugal is even more ominous. Portugal will see Ronaldo become the third player in Portuguese history to hit the 100 cap mark following Luis Figo’s 127 and Fernando Couto’s 110. The Real Madrid superstar will be keen to cap his special day with a goal or two and the Northern Ireland backline face a difficult task to keep the Portugal waves at bay.
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