Can Northern Ireland qualify for Euro 2020?
Background image: Citizen69. CC BY-SA 4.0.
Euro Qualifying has gone about as well as could be expected for Northern Ireland. In their first four games, they took maximum points, largely thanks to a tight defence led by Jonny Evans. A quartet of wins, two each against Estonia and Belarus, set Norn Iron on the road to glory and a spot in the Euros.
Then came the comedown. A home game to Germany saw Northern Ireland fall to a comprehensive 2-0 defeat. It was a stark reminder of the differences inherent in international football. You can whale on the micronations all you like, but when the big boys come to town, you’re going to get schooled.
Michael O’Neill’s men have three games to go, two against the Netherlands and away clash in Germany. It’s a tall order, but the Green and White Army are in a good starting position, standing on the brink of qualification for Euro 2020. If they could pull a surprise result or two out of the bag, Northern Ireland could qualify for the Euros for a second season on the trot.
Green and White Delight?
While Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland are enjoying a crop of talented youngsters breaking through at senior level, Northern Ireland’s squad is falling victim to the ravages of age. Several members of the heroic 2016 Euro squad now retired, and precious little young blood brought in to freshen things up. The baby of the setup is Shayne Lavery, a 20-year-old forward with a handful of senior appearances for Falkirk and Linfield. Hardly a world-class prospect. Sure, there are some solid players involved; Leicester City’s Johnny Evans and Kyle Lafferty of Sparsborg stand out. But there’s no genuine star power.
Getting one over on teams including talent from Europe’s top leagues seems like an impossible task, but miracles do happen. Cast your mind back to 2006 when Northern Ireland pulled off a famous 3-2 win over Spain. David Healy whacked a hat trick past a team including Carlos Puyol and Xabi Alonso. More recently, they’ve drawn with Portugal and beaten Russia on the road to the 2016 Euros. Would a tight win over the Netherlands and a draw in Germany be much different?
Park that bus!
If there’s one thing Michael O’Neill is good at, it’s getting his side tight and playing good counter-attacking football. The game against Germany is important, but more crucial still are the ties against the Netherlands. O’Neil can use this first game against Germany as well as the subsequent friendly against the Czech Republic to establish a solid defensive unit. They’ve got a solid centre-back pairing in the shape of Evans and Cathcart, not to mention Steven Davis in midfield, as well as experienced stopper McGovern between the sticks. Getting those solid workhorses playing to their full potential will be vital for Northern Ireland's campaign.
The attacking line is a somewhat bigger problem. Nobody stands out as likely to pull something out of the hat, and even against Estonia and Belarus, Norn Iron were hardly prolific up top. The best goal ratio in the entire squad belongs to Lafferty, and at just shy of 1 in 4, that’s hardly inspiring.
It’ll take the mother of all lockdowns to pull this off. O’Neil ought to go out and find the biggest bus he can, park it across goal and jam the handbrake firmly in place. Then it’s just a matter of hoping for a miracle. True, making it into the Euros for a second consecutive season would take a herculean effort. But it's worth remembering where this team comes from. If they can pull this off, there’ll be a few more legends standing proudly on Giant’s Causeway.