The key talking points ahead of Northern Ireland’s trip to Greece

Northern Ireland face Greece in Athens in their final Nations League fixture on Tuesday night.

After finally ending their long winless run in this competition with victory over Kosovo on Saturday, Northern Ireland will be hoping to build momentum but there is much more on the line than that.

Here, the PA news agency looks at the key talking points ahead of the game.

Ongoing distractions

Northern Ireland v Cyprus – UEFA Nations League – Group 2 – Windsor Park
Conor McMenamin is back in the Northern Ireland squad (Niall Carson/PA)

When Northern Ireland were able to announce on the eve of this fixture that Conor McMenamin had been cleared by an independent disciplinary committee to play, Ian Baraclough was no doubt hoping that would be an end to the social media video controversy which has dominated this window. McMenamin was restored as it was determined the video of him appearing to sing a pro-IRA slogan was several years old and had been dealt with at the time. But the manager’s revelation that the footage of Kyle Lafferty – sent home last week – appearing to use alleged sectarian language was believed to have been taken after a team night out last week will keep it at the front of conversation.

Century up

Jonny Evans is already among elite company in Northern Ireland’s history but the 34-year-old will hit a special landmark in Athens as he makes his 100th appearance for his country. It is 16 years since Evans, still at that point to make his senior debut for Manchester United, earned his first cap playing out of position in the memorable 3-2 win over Spain in Belfast, and since then the Leicester defender has enjoyed a fine career, capped by playing in all four games as Northern Ireland reached the last 16 at Euro 2016. As is tradition for players reaching landmarks, Evans will have the captain’s armband against Greece.

Building blocks

Northern Ireland v Kosovo – UEFA Nations League – Group J – Windsor Park
Josh Magennis celebrates his goal against Kosovo (Liam McBurney/PA)

As Josh Magennis was quick to note, things could have turned very ugly at Windsor Park on Saturday as Northern Ireland found themselves 1-0 down to Kosovo with 10 minutes to go with a small section of fans again calling for Baraclough to go. But it turned around in a hurry as goals from Gavin Whyte and Magennis flipped the game on its head and ended Northern Ireland’s long hoodoo in this competition – their first win in 15 attempts. With some wind in their sails and confidence restored, can Northern Ireland build on that in Athens?

Relegation still a threat

Northern Ireland were still celebrating their win over Kosovo when the scoreline from Larnaca came though to dampen the mood – Cyprus’ surprise 1-0 win over Greece kept them level with Northern Ireland and still locked in a battle to avoid bottom spot in the group and the prospect of a relegation play-off in March 2024 to avoid the drop to the bottom tier of the competition. That means the pressure is still on Baraclough’s men who need to avoid defeat to be certain of steering clear of trouble.

Greece form

Northern Ireland v Greece – UEFA Nations League – Group 2 – Windsor Park
Greece boss Gus Poyet admitted he was surprised by his side’s defeat to Cyprus (Brian Lawless/PA)

That victory for Cyprus raised obvious questions over Northern Ireland’s hosts on Tuesday night. Gus Poyet’s side swept to four victories in June to secure top place in the group and a ticket to League B, but were well off that form in Larnaca. Greece were below their best in that game, failing to properly threaten, but Poyet said it was just an off night rather than a sign of bigger problems. “Please let us not be dramatic,” he said. “Our duty was to win the group and we won it. If we don’t achieve our objectives we can be more dramatic…We will change nothing. We will play the same way because I’m convinced and the players are convinced. It’s football. Some people win, some people lose, because the opposition can play well.”