On 7th December 2020, Northern Ireland learnt who we would be up against in our quest to make our first World Cup Finals since 1986. Recent results meant that we were amongst the Pot 3 seed and were subsequently drawn alongside Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Lithuania in Group C.

As has become custom in recent years, the road to Qatar isn’t a simple one. We are in a group of five teams, meaning we will not face any pot six teams. The nation finishing top automatically qualifies for the 2022 World Cup. Simple so far, right?

The group runners-up will face play-offs against the other second placed nations plus the two best Nations League group winners (based on the Nations League overall ranking) that finished outside of the top two of their World Cup Qualifying group. We can go over that again after we get a few wins on the board!

The draw is tough, there is no doubting that, but it was welcomed from the perspective of being paired with some unfamiliar nations. Obviously the Covid-affected world we are continuing to live in reduces that excitement somewhat, but hopefully we will be back in the stadiums and able to enjoy an away day sooner rather than later.

First, where are we up to going into Baraclough’s first World Cup campaign in charge?

NORTHERN IRELAND

Capital City: Belfast
Stadium: Windsor Park
Manager: Ian Baraclough
Captain: Steven Davis
FIFA Ranking: 45
Form: DLLLL
Last World Cup: 1986 (Group Stages)
Five-A-Side team: Peacock-Farrell, J.Evans, Davis, McNair, Dallas

Let’s be frank, we’re not in great form. We haven’t won a game in 90 minutes for nearly 18 months; the wait is nearer two years for a competitive win. Those stats seem puzzling when you consider how close we were to booking our place at Euro 2020. It very much feels like that we are in a process of transition. Euro 2016 was dreamland for us  and those memories will live on for some time, but we have been unable to hit the same form since.

Peacock-Farrell is likely to retain the Number One jersey this campaign after numerous impressive performances in recent fixtures despite his lack of club football. Elsewhere at the back, we are relatively well-placed. Jonny Evans will continue to be key to hopes of a successful campaign. There will likely be a gradual handover throughout the campaign as we bring through the likes of Ballard and Flanagan. Premier League Dallas and Lewis are likely to occupy the full-back positions, but if Baraclough opts to use Dallas in the midfield position as he has predominantly enjoyed for Leeds United this year, then the experienced Conor McLaughlin and Michael Smith will be suitable replacements.

Steven Davis has enjoyed an excellent year for Rangers and will go into this campaign in buoyant mood with Rangers having secured their 55th league title. This may well be his last campaign so he will be eager to go out with a bang. McNair and Saville have been enjoying excellent form for Middlesbrough in the Championship this year. Jordan Thompson being well-utilised by Michael O’Neill at Stoke City and Corry Evans is gradually building up game time at Blackburn Rovers. All in all, we look to have a strong central midfield for the upcoming campaign, with the likes of Ali McCann and Ethan Galbraith looking like bright prospects for the future.

Scoring goals has been a common problem over the years and it again feels like something that will be occupying Baraclough’s mind in approach of the upcoming games. Pace on the wings is likely to be desired to aid our ability to utilise the counter attacking tactic. Gavin Whyte, Jordan Jones and Matty Kennedy all have that in abundance; and will be fighting hard to be on the teamsheet for first game against Italy.

Up front, arguably for once, we have a number of strikers hitting good form just at the right time. Liam Boyce, who was favoured from the start in the final two games of 2020, has scored over a dozen goals for Hearts this year. Magennis has been a regular contributor for Grant McCann’s Hull City side. Washington is on a great run of form for Charlton having scored four goals in his last three games at the time of writing. Finally, fans’ favourite Kyle Lafferty has made a promising start to life at Kilmarnock under Tommy Wright.

Now, on to our opponents:

ITALY

Capital City: Rome
Stadium: Various
Manager: Roberto Mancini
Captain: Giorgio Chiellini
FIFA Ranking: 10
Form: WWWDD
Last World Cup: 2014 (Group Stages)
Last time around: Italy 3-0 Northern Ireland (October 2011)
Five-A-Side team: Donnarumma, Florenzi, Emerson, Jorginho, Insigne

Italy missed out on the 2018 World Cup after being pipped to top spot in their group by Spain before losing out in the play-off to Sweden. That means that there will be increased pressure on former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini to ensure that there are no similar slip-ups this time around. In a complete contrast to our form going into this campaign, Italy haven’t lost a match since September 2018, magnifying just how difficult our first fixture of the campaign – away to Italy – Is going to be.

There is plenty of recognisable talent in this side. Chelsea’s Emerson and Jorginho are regulars, whilst Napoli’s Insigne and Juventus’ Bernarderschi are attacking threats. Hopefully, by the time this talent-filled squad make their way to Belfast in November 2021, the GAWA will have returned in numbers to witness the clash. 

SWITZERLAND

Capital City: Bern
Stadium: Various
Manager: Vladimir Petkovic
Captain: Granit Xhaka
FIFA Ranking: 16
Form: WDLDL
Last World Cup: 2018 (Round of 16)
Last time around: Switzerland 0-0 Northern Ireland (November 2017)
Five-A-Side team: Sommer, Schar, Shaqiri, Xhaka, Seferovic

For the GAWA, playing Switzerland is likely to bring back bitter memories of the play-off for the 2018 World Cup; the less said about that vital refereeing decision in the first leg, the better. The Swiss had a tough Nations League group having been drawn against Spain, Germany and Ukraine. However, they fared well, taking six points from the six games which included a 3-3 draw away to Germany. They will be hoping for similar results in this campaign.

Liverpool’s Shaqiri and Arsenal’s Xhaka mean that the Swiss boast an impressive midfield, with experiences spread across other areas of the pitch, including goalkeeper Yann Sommer who has over 500 senior appearances and over 50 for his country.

Let’s hope we can get revenge for the 2018 play-off in this campaign.

BULGARIA

Capital City: Sofia
Stadium: Vasil Levski National Stadium
Manager: Yasen Petrov
Captain: Petar Zanev
FIFA Ranking: 68
Form: DLWLL
Last World Cup: 1998 (Group Stages)
Last time around: Northern Ireland 0-1 Bulgaria (February 2008)
Five-A-Side team: Lukov, Popov, Malinov, Yankov, Kraev

The current Bulgarian squad will largely be unfamiliar to the GAWA. However, ex-Premier League stars Stiliyan Petrov and Dimitar Berbatov boast the records for record cap holder and joint top goalscorer respectively. Goalscoring has been a problem for Bulgaria in recent years having scored only three goals in the last seven competitive games. Consequently, the Bulgarains fared very similarly to us in their Nations League campaign, finishing bottom of their group and earning just two points in the process.

Realistically, we can expect Bulgaria to be fighting it out with us and the Swiss for the play-off place in the group. However, they have a tough start to proceedings with home ties against Switzerland and Italy before their trip to Belfast. For many, a trip to Sofia is likely the most attractive of the campaign and with the game scheduled for October, there is a glimmer of vaccine-inspired hope that we will be there.

LITHUANIA

Capital City: Vilnius
Stadium: LFF Stadium
Manager: Valdas Urbonas
Captain: Fedor Cernych
FIFA Ranking: 129
Form: WLWDD
Last World Cup: Never qualified (but qualified as part of USSR up until 1990)

Last time around: Lithuania 0-1 Northern Ireland (May 1993)
Five-A-Side team: Svedkauskas, Vaitkunas, Simkus, Vorobjovas, Sirgedas

The Lithuanians are relatively unknown to us having only faced off on two occasions back in the World Cup 1994 Qualifiers. It is certainly welcome to be drawn against some fresh opponents for a change. Lithuania are now ranked 129th in the world, having dropped significantly from their all-time high of 37th back in 2008. Defender Vytas Gasputitis plays his trade in the Scottish Championship for Dunfermline Athletic after signing in February 2021. The rest of the squad mainly play their club football in Eastern Europe.

Lithuania face a tough start to the campaign with a trip to Switzerland before a home tie against Italy. They will warm-up for these competitive fixtures with a friendly fixture against Kosovo.