Northern Ireland resume their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign when they take on Slovenia in Ljubljana on Thursday.
The match is part of an away double-header in Group H, with Michael O’Neill’s men travelling to Astana to face Kazakhstan at the weekend.
Here, the PA news agency looks at the key talking points ahead of Thursday’s match.
No end to injury woes
Michael O’Neill has not had much luck on the injury front since his return to the Northern Ireland job in December. Key players Stuart Dallas, Steven Davis and Corry Evans have not been fit to play since last year, and the injury list goes on with the likes of Shane Ferguson, Jamal Lewis, Conor Bradley Shayne Lavery, Dale Taylor and Aaron Donnelly all sidelined, while Dan Ballard has reported to camp with a concern after Sunderland’s 5-0 win over Southampton.
O’Neill’s squad includes several players with limited or no experience at international level, leaving the manager to put some square pegs in round holes when it comes to naming a side. The loss of Lewis along with Ferguson means there is no naturally left full-back or wing-back in the squad, so although Bradley is out and Hume might fancy his favoured right wing-back role, chances are he will be on the left again. Josh Magennis and Conor Washington are back from injury, and may go straight back into the side after Lavery and Taylor were forced out.
Evans and Cathcart
As young as this Northern Ireland side is in many departments, the centre of defence is still anchored by Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart. However, there is a different concern with the two seasoned campaigners. Evans enjoyed a pre-season with Manchester United before signing a one-year contract with his boyhood club, but the 35-year-old’s second-half appearance as a substitute in Sunday’s loss at Arsenal was his first competitive football since Northern Ireland’s June qualifiers. Cathcart comes into these fixtures even more undercooked, having been without a club since he left Watford at the end of last season before signing for Belgian side KV Kortrijk on Tuesday. The 34-year-old had been training with the Hornets but is bound to be short of match fitness. With an injury concern over Ballard, Northern Ireland are stretched at the back.
With so many senior players out and so many youngsters in, O’Neill said in June that qualifying was no longer the goal in this campaign, but the mood music has changed coming into this camp. O’Neill sounded a different tone when he announced his squad last month, and the players too have been talking about how two good results in this window could get them back in the mix before October’s double-header at Windsor Park. Whether they have the resources to do it remains to be seen.
Northern Ireland have taken only three points from their opening four qualifiers, and those came in the opening fixture away to minnows San Marino. But while everything else has been a defeat, the losses to Denmark away and Finland and Kazakhstan in Belfast have all come by a 1-0 margin. Scoring has been a long-term problem for Northern Ireland, but they have remained defensively strong and will take confidence from that with more experienced strikers back in the fold.
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