On Friday night in Windsor Park, Belfast, Michael O’Neill’s Northern Irishmen looked like they were on the verge of another famous home victory against one of Europe’s heavyweights.
All was going well until a couple of rushes of blood to the heads of Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty saw the Northern Irishmen reduced to nine players and to top it all off Cristiano Ronaldo suddenly reminded us all why he is one of the best footballers the world has ever seen by completing a 15 minute hat-trick in the second half.
It’s not all doom and gloom right now for Northern Ireland as qualifying in the play-off place is still technically possible. They currently sit nine points behind Fabio Capello’s Russia with three games left to play, but even if they win all three remaining games, they still have to depend on other results going their way.
The fact remains that they have picked up one win out of their seven games so far, which at this point during the crunch time of the group, doesn’t bode well for their chances.
Fortunately, though, tonight they have a chance to pick up three points away to a side that have performed even worse than them. Luxembourg haven’t won a game during their whole qualifying campaign and have only scraped three points from three draws – one which came at Windsor Park against Northern Ireland.
However, they were stuffed 4-1 by Russia in their last fixture and head into their match tonight without a competitive win in ten games – a run that stretches from September 2011.
Northern Ireland go into tonight’s game missing striker Kyle Lafferty due to suspension, and will once again miss midfielder Chris Brunt through suspension. Rangers’ midfielder Dean Shiels has been called in as replacement to the squad.
Michael O’Neill’s side have shown that they aren’t a team who like to lie down to their opponents, no matter the size of the challenge.
The unfortunate thing is that they seem to play to the same level as their opponents: teams like Portugal and Russia can make Northern Ireland look impressive, but on the other side of the coin, teams like Azerbaijan and Luxembourg can make them look terrible.
If O’Neill can get his side to realise they are a better team than their opponents are tonight, then there is no reason why they can’t go out and pick up the three points.
Even if the points mean nothing in the end towards their qualification, it will still mean a great deal to the travelling Northern Irish fans who passionately support their country win, lose or draw.
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