Northern Ireland u21’s can re-energize their Euro 2023 qualifying prospects by stringing together a pair of wins over the next few days.
After a poor start in Group C which included defeats away from home against the top two seeds, the Irish can move onto 9 points with simultaneous victories over Lithuania and Malta at home.
Finishing second-place in the group ensures a play-off against another group runner-up for a place in the finals in Georgia and Romania, so Northern Ireland must aim to dislodge the Russians from that second spot, while keeping an eye on Slovakia whom they’ve already defeated at home.
Bettering 100% Spain and winning the group appears unrealistic, and of course everything has been made all the more difficult by that dreadful opening-day 1-4 defeat to Malta In Valetta.
The Maltese have lost all three games since including a 1-2 defeat in Lithuania, conceding no fewer than 12 goals in the process.
Lithuania, also in the group’s basement level with Northern Ireland and Malta all on three points, have lost home games against Spain and Russia and went down 1-3 in Slovakia.
Northern Ireland coach Jon Schofield has includes no fewer than 8 locally based players in his 21-man squad, including all five forwards.
The game also provides further opportunity for Linfield’s Trai Hume to enhance his burgeoning reputation, although Conor Bradley (Liverpool), Ethan Galbraith (Doncaster Rovers on loan from Manchester United) and Dale Taylor (Nottingham Forest), are all unavailable, elevated to the senior squad.
There are two newcomers in the squad. Manchester City defender/midfielder Shea Charles, a former u19 and u16 international and Ards striker Calvin McCurry who was previously capped at u18 level. McCurry is one of two NIFL Championship players in the squad, the other being Newry Town’s John McGovern.
Nottingham Forest’s Aaron Donnelly is optimistic. “This time we’ve got to stay level-headed, try to break these teams down and hopefully get six points from these two games.”
The game against Lithuania is Friday (12 November) at Ballymena Showgrounds (2pm start), while Mourneview Park scene of Northern Ireland’s sole victory of the campaign to date v Slovakia, hosts the visit of Malta. That’s next Tuesday (16 November) with a 7.30pm kick-off.
The Northern Ireland squad for the two games is -
Goalkeepers – Liam Hughes (Liverpool), Ollie Webber (Crystal Palace).
Defenders – Aaron Donnelly (Nottingham Forest), Trai Hume (Linfield), Kofi Balmer (Larne), Finn Cousin-Dawson (Bradford City), Jack Scott (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Sean Stewart (Norwich City).
Midfielders – Alfie McCalmont (Morecambe – on loan from Leeds United), Caolan Boyd-Munce (Birmingham City), Oisin Smyth (Dungannon Swifts), Barry Baggley (Fleetwood Town), Chris Conn-Clarke (Fleetwood Town), Carl Johnston (Fleetwood Town), JJ McKiernan (Watford), Paddy Lane (Fleetwood Town), Shea Charles (Manchester City).
Forwards – Paul O’Neill (Cliftonville), Harry Anderson (Portadown), Ryan Waide (Ballymena United), Calvin McCurry (Ards), John McGovern (Newry City).