2020 has been a year to forget for many people and I think you can include the GAWA in that category: the moving on of Michael O’Neill; the crushing of our Euro 2020 dreams; and no wins within 90 minutes. One game remains – can Northern Ireland finish the year on a high? A little like the trip to Oslo last month, Sunday night’s performance was encouraging, especially when considering the inexperience amongst the team. The result, however, was not. The 2-1 loss to Austria was our fifth loss out of seven games under Ian Baraclough. A significant improvement is needed in 2021.
Next up is Romania at Windsor Park. In what now feels like some time ago, Northern Ireland began their second UEFA Nations League campaign positively with a trip to Bucharest with a Gavin Whyte equaliser earning a point after playing most of the game with 10 men.
Romania will come into the game with a lot more energy in their legs than our squad as their game against Norway was postponed for Covid-19 related issues for the Scandanavians. UEFA are yet to make a decision on the impact that the postponement will have on the league table but given that the Norweigians were responsible for the postponement, it appears likely that Romania will be awarded the three points. If that proves to be the case, Northern Ireland will be relegated to League C (which means lots of interesting away dreams in a Covid-free world) and this fixture becomes a bit of a dead rubber.
Rangers fans will be familiar with Ianis Hagi and he will be hoping to earn his 15th cap for Romania. He has impressed in the Scottish Premiership since January when he originally joined on loan before making his move permanent in the summer. It will be interesting to see how he fares up against what is likely to be a mixed bag for Northern Ireland.
Ian Baraclough has stated that there are now five players missing from his original squad with the most recent omission being Steven Davis, who has left the squad for personal reasons. That means that the skipper will have to wait until 2021 for the opportunity to equal the record for the most-capped British player of all time. The other absentees are George Saville, Niall McGinn, Kyle Lafferty and Jordan Thompson.
The 3-5-2 formation seemed to work well on Sunday, providing solid cover at the back whilst showing sparks going forward with the link-up play between the two strikers. We predict Baraclough will stick with this system. There may be merit in adopting it long-term to make the most of our experienced players. The absentees may result in the full squad being used in this international break as only Conor Hazard, Ryan McLaughlin and Ethan Galbraith have not featured so far. The GAWA will be excited to watch the latter if he is given the opportunity to impress in what would be his second international cap.
A win in Belfast on Wednesday may mean very little in the grand scheme of things with relegation to League C looking all but sealed. However, it may well be a timely reminder to the GAWA and the squad themselves, that this squad remains capable on the international scene, and there is sufficient talent coming through the ranks to challenge for places at future major championships.
LAST TIME AROUND
Romania 1 (Puscas 25)
Northern Ireland 1 (Whyte 86)
Romania’s FIFA Ranking: 44
Romania’s Form: WLLLW
HEAD TO HEAD
NI wins: 3
Romania wins: 2
PREDICTED NORTHERN IRELAND LINE-UP
Peacock-Farrell, C.McLaughlin, J.Evans, Flanagan, Cathcart, Lewis, McNair, McCann, Dallas, Magennis, Boyce