Talking points ahead of Northern Ireland’s Nations League opener against Greece

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Northern Ireland kick off their new Nations League campaign when Greece visit Windsor Park on Thursday night.

The fixture is the first of a quadruple-header which will also see Ian Baraclough’s side face Cyprus away and at home, either side of a trip to Kosovo.

Here, the PA news agency takes a look at the talking points around Thursday’s match.

Room for improvement

Northern Ireland have never had a happy relationship with the Nations League. Their record in the competition makes for miserable reading: played 10, drawn two, lost eight and won none – scoring only six and conceding 18 along the way. They only avoided relegation the first time around as the competition was reformatted, but League C was the inevitable conclusion second time around. But having gone down, Northern Ireland start as top seeds in their group and with hope of finding a way to the European play-offs.

Greece is the word

Soccer – Barclays Premier League – Sunderland v Aston Villa – Stadium of Light
Gus Poyet took over as Greece boss in February (Owen Humphreys/PA)

The visit of Gus Poyet’s men will bring back some happy memories for Northern Ireland fans – their last two meetings against the Piratiko were key victories during qualification for Euro 2016, 2-0 in Athens and 3-1 in Belfast. Since then Greece have also missed out on the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020, with their squad undergoing a rebuild as the 2004 European champions look to work their way back up the rankings. They have never been higher than League C in the Nations League.

Lafferty’s back

Northern Ireland v USA – International Friendly – Windsor Park
Kyle Lafferty’s last international goal came in 2016 (Liam McBurney/PA)

There’s a familiar face back in the 28-strong squad as Kyle Lafferty is called up for the first time in almost a year. The 34-year-old is Northern Ireland’s second-highest scorer with 20 goals for his country, but the last of them came in 2016, and he been overlooked in recent windows during a time when he took up a succession of short-term contracts at different clubs around Europe. But after scoring eight goals in 14 to help fire Kilmarnock back to the Scottish Premiership, he could hardly be ignored at a time when Josh Magennis is injured.

McMenamin’s moment

While Lafferty is a familiar face back is the squad, there are plenty of fresh ones too. While Shea Charles, Brodie Spencer and Charlie McCann have graduated from the under-21s, the most eye-catching call-up was Glentoran’s Conor McMenamin. The 26-year-old has never played for his country at any level, but after scoring 22 goals for Glentoran this season he was handed a chance to impress at an end-of-season training camp and has done enough to convince Baraclough he could have a role to play.

Davis’ future resolved

The timing of Rangers’ announcement of a new one-year deal for Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis was surely no coincidence. Confirmation came through on Tuesday night, ensuring the 37-year-old did not, for once, need to face any questions about the dreaded ‘retirement’ word as he handled media duties at Windsor Park.

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