Baraclough’s men are preparing for a must-win play-off for the 2020 European Championships (to be played in 2021). This is the second scheduled date for the game against Bosnia, with the original date having been postponed due to continent-wide restrictions caused by Covid-19 in March.
Much has changed since the original date, not least the man in charge of the Northern Ireland squad – Ian Baraclough has replaced Michael O’Neill who now manages Stoke City.
A tough task lies ahead for Baraclough, as in only his third match as Northern Ireland senior manager, the Bosnians stand sternly in the way of a play-off final against Slovakia or the Republic of Ireland in November as the Green and White Army dream of their second European Championships in a row.
Baraclough has named a 26-man squad for the October international break, which begins with the mouth-watering clash in Sarajevo, before UEFA Nations League games against Austria at Windsor Park and Norway in Oslo.
In the week leading up to the game, the Bosnian Football Federation announced that a member of their squad had tested positive for coronavirus, and therefore will miss the play-off semi-final. Haris Duljevic, who scored when the Bosians travelled to Belfast in the Nations League group stages in 2018, is the player missing out. The Bosnian’s assistant coach, Rusmir Cviko, has also tested positive for the virus and will not be involved in proceedings.
At the time of writing, the only other absentee for the Bosnians is the absence of Elvir Koljic to injury – he was replaced by Milan Duric.
Ian Baraclough’s 26-man squad have been unaffected by injuries to date.
The Bosnians will be supported by 2,000 of their fans as UEFA look to slowly reintroduce fans to games following the pandemic beginning with an allowance of 30% of the stadium capacity. They come into the game in similar vein to Baraclough’s men having enjoyed a promising draw away to Italy and then experienced a disappointing loss to Poland at home.
A key battle in the fixture is likely to be between Edin Dzeko and Jonny Evans – the pair who played for opposite sides of the Manchester derby at one point are likely to have a huge impact on the game either way. The Roma captain was the difference, scoring two goals, nearly two years ago when Northern Ireland succumbed to a 2-0 defeat in a disappointing UEFA Nations League campaign, which is somehow concluding with an opportunity to appear at the European Championships – only a complicated UEFA algorithm knows how!
Northern Ireland will be hoping to keep it tighter at the back than last time out, when the Norwegian stunned the backline, putting five past Peacock-Farrell in Belfast last month. With the likely return of Jonny Evans to the starting line-up strengthening the defence, can Baraclough’s men get the result they need to put themselves one step away from another major championships? Time will tell.
Last time around: 2-0 Bosnia (Dzeko x2) – 15 October 2018 (Sarajevo)
Venue: Stadion Grbavica (16,000)
Predicted line-up: Peacock-Farrell, Dallas, J.Evans, Cathcart, Lewis, McNair, Davis, C.Evans, Saville, Magennis, Washington