Northern Ireland fans will be dreaming of a summer trip to Russia as they take on Switzerland in a World Cup Qualifying play off. The first leg which takes place tonight at Windsor Park will play a pivotal part for Michael O’Neil’s side if they are to have any chance of going through to next summers finals.
Northern Ireland are a team who are justifiably earning a lot of respect from being a side that used to struggle to qualify for major tournaments, to a team that on any given night are now capable of causing an upset.
What’s impressive about their qualification campaign so far is that they’ve built on the success that they had at Euro 2016.
Their home form remains impressive, only World Champions Germany have won there in the last four games, a run which shouldn’t be sniffed at, after impressive qualifying wins over Norway and Czech Republic.
As for Switzerland, they must get over the fact they came so close to qualifying from their qualification group as they lost out to Portugal on just goal difference. This came after winning ten out of their eleven matches.
Vladimir Petkovic’s side will go into the tie as favourites especially as they lie 11th in the Fifa rankings, 12 places higher than Northern Ireland. They also posses an array of talent and there will be a couple of familiar names in Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka that the Green Army will need to keep an eye on, if they are to progress.
Strangely these two countries have played very little against each other. Two of the most recent meetings was a 1-0 win for Northern Ireland back in 1998, whilst the second was a goalless draw in Switzerland 13 years ago.
Those two results would be exactly what Micheal O’Neil and any Northern Ireland fan would love as they aim to get to their first World Cup since 1986. O’Neil has very few injury concerns going into this two legged affair.
He has plenty of competition for places up front and must decide on who to go with, with strikers Kyle Lafferty, Connor Washington and Josh Magennis all vying for a place to start.
At the back Aaron Hughes and Paddy McNair have been passed fit but it is more likely that the West Brom duo of Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans will start of the heart of defence.
Switzerland head into the play off without former Arsenal defender Johan Djorou who has a knee injury. This means that Basel defender Manuel Akanji could be in contention to replace Djorou at the back and partner the ever excellent Juventus defender Stefan Lichsteiner.
Michael Hughes will want his side to go into the tie and give everything for the cause, however, there must be discipline to the way they approach the first game. No fewer than eight Northern Ireland players are on yellow cards and if the likes of captain Steven Davis and key player Jonny Evans pick up another, they will miss the second leg in Basel on Sunday.
With the ability that the Swiss posses with the likes of Shaqiri, there’s no doubting that Petkovic’s side will be favorites. However what could come in favor for Northern Ireland is a partisan home crowd in the first leg and the fact that Switzerland could still in there minds be wondering why they haven’t made the finals already having come so close to qualifying.
If O’Neil’s side can get a win at Windsor Park they will give themselves a fighting chance, anything less and it’s going to be a tall order.
Switzerland should have too much class and come June should be at the World Cup, but they must not underestimate their opponents.