Tonight at Windsor Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland play host to group leaders Portugal in a match that is a must win for both sides.
Last month in a rearranged clash against Fabio Capello’s Russia, Northern Ireland pulled off their first victory in Group F; a win that also turned out to be manager Michael O’Neill’s first win since taking over as boss in December 2011.
While Northern Ireland impressed in the reverse of this fixture in Porto when they pulled off a 1-1 draw against Paulo Bento’s side, overall the side have had a disappointing campaign having only picked up six points and currently lying in fourth place in the group table.
Hopes of finishing in the top-two look to be well out of reach for the Northern Irishmen, as Portugal and Russia appear hot favourites to fill these positions, but that won’t mean Michael O’Neill’s side will want to lie down to Portugal tonight.
For Portugal the biggest issue appears to be the recent run of form from Israel. As it stands at the moment Portugal are leading Russia by two points and leading Israel by three, but each of the two sides have a game in hand on Portugal, which inevitably makes picking up three points tonight absolutely vital for The Seleccao.
Portugal’s chances and spirits will be increased following the news that captain Cristiano Ronaldo has been declared fit to play. The Real Madrid forward had to sit out during training this week with a muscle injury, but is now expected to feature in the starting line up tonight.
However, the side will be somewhat rocked following the news that goalkeeper Beto, midfielder Danny and striker Hugo Almeida have all had to pull out of the squad this week due to injury.
To replace these men Bento has called up young Rennes striker Nelson Oliviera and uncapped pair Anthony Lopes and Lica to the squad that also have a friendly clash against Brazil coming up on the 10th of September.
As for Northern Ireland, West Brom midfielder Chris Brunt returns to the side after suspension and Palermo striker Kyle Lafferty returns following an Achilles injury.
However, defenders Ryan McGivern and Aaron Hughes have had to pull out this week due to injuries, so Michael O’Neill may have to recall experienced Chirs Baird, even though he is currently unattached to any club.
News that Ronaldo is fit for this game won’t be great news for the Northern Ireland defence, as he more than anyone else will want to take the responsibility of his country on his shoulders to put in three of his big game performances in the remainder of the qualification stage to make sure his side are going to be competing on the biggest stage in Brazil next year.
Northern Ireland isn’t an easy ride at home, though; England, Spain and more recently, Russia, can all vouch for that. But this is a game Portugal should win if they play the way they know they can.
If Paulo Bento’s side fail to secure the three points that are on the line tonight it will open that door for Russia and Israel to get themselves ahead of Portugal at the most important stage of the qualification campaign.
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