Northern Ireland head to Vilnius on Thursday night to face Lithuania in their 2022 World Cup qualifier.
Ian Baraclough’s men are still seeking their first win of the campaign after taking one point from the opening Group C fixtures in March.
Here the PA news agency takes a look at the key talking points ahead of the encounter at the LFF Stadium.
Crunch time already
Northern Ireland may have earned plaudits but took no points for their display in the opening 2-0 defeat to Italy, while the home draw with Bulgaria that followed was a disappointment. With Italy and next Wednesday’s opponents Switzerland having taken maximum points from their fixtures so far Baraclough’s men risk being distanced in Group C already. They cannot afford any more dropped points against a struggling Lithuania side in Vilnius if they want to stay in touch.
Need for goals
Northern Ireland’s main problem at present is a familiar one – take out June’s 3-0 friendly win over Malta and Baraclough’s men have scored only one goal in their last four outings. The situation is made no easier by an injury for Josh Magennis, while the one striker showing deadly form at club level – Liam Boyce has scored seven goals in nine for Hearts this season – remains absent for family reasons. Conor Washington is back in the squad for the first time since November while veteran Kyle Lafferty has been called in as cover for Magennis, but Baraclough would love to see Shayne Lavery and Dion Charles get their first international goals and help solve the problem.
Injuries create opportunities
While Lavery and Charles might be able to capitalise on Magennis’ absence to push their own claims, they are not the only ones looking to take a chance. Dan Ballard continued to impress during the June friendlies and is in line to start in the absence of vice-captain Jonny Evans. Corry Evans is also missing, and that should give Preston’s new signing Ali McCann the opening to continue the strong start he has made to his international career.
Baraclough has also suffered disruption to his backroom staff in the build up to this international window. Austin MacPhee – recently made set-piece coach at Aston Villa – has left his role with Northern Ireland after seven years, making the switch to Scotland only one week ago. Baraclough quickly moved to replace him with Adam Sadler, but the Leicester first-team coach will miss this week’s fixtures following a family bereavement.
You will find few household names in the Lithuania squad, under new management in the form of Valdas Ivanauskas. Baraclough has pointed to the fact that the players are all familiar with one another as most are based in the domestic league, but that has not helped them in recent times as they have lost six on the bounce. That included defeats in their opening qualifiers against Switzerland and Italy, but also a miserable run in the Baltic Cup. They have only one competitive win in the last two years, so Baraclough will be keen to capitalise on facing struggling opponents.