Talking points ahead of Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifier with San Marino

Michael O’Neill’s second reign as Northern Ireland manager will get under way when his side face San Marino on Thursday night.

The first game of their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign comes before what is sure to be an emotional homecoming for O’Neill against Finland at Windsor Park this weekend.

Here the PA news agency looks at the key talking points before Thursday’s match.

The Return

Michael O’Neill File Photo
Michael O’Neill will be in charge for the first time since 2019 (Niall Carson/PA)

The availability of O’Neill following his exit from Stoke was perhaps a factor in the Irish FA’s decision to sack Ian Baraclough late last year. During an eight-year reign from 2012 to 2020, O’Neill transformed Northern Ireland’s fortunes, most notably by guiding them to Euro 2016, but more generally by making them a force in each of their qualifying campaigns. Whether or not the 53-year-old can replicate that success, and how long it might take him to put his stamp back on to the team, will make for a fascinating watch.

Depleted numbers

The squad that has travelled to San Marino is not the one O’Neill had hoped to pick. Stuart Dallas was always a long shot to make it as he continues his recovery from a broken leg, but he is just part of a long list of absentees that also includes Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Liam Boyce, Shayne Lavery and Conor McMenamin. With both the captain Davis and vice-captain Jonny Evans out, O’Neill is without a huge part of his established leadership group, not to mention players who would need no introduction to what he wants from his side.

Selection decisions

Northern Ireland v Italy – FIFA World Cup 2022 – European Qualifying – Group C – Windsor Park
Craig Cathcart will captain the side in the absence of Steven Davis and Jonny Evans (Liam McBurney/PA)

Those absences leave O’Neill with a number of key decisions to make in his team selection, not least when it comes to the shape. The loss of Jonny Evans and the lack of wide players following the late withdrawal of McMenamin could point to a 3-5-2 system, with Dan Ballard and Ciaron Brown partnering captain Craig Cathcart at the back. O’Neill also has a decision to make over Conor Bradley and Trai Hume, two of the brightest prospects in the squad but also two players both vying for the same spot at either right-back or right wing-back. The biggest challenge might be to replace Davis. Northern Ireland have always known the 38-year-old cannot play forever of course, but with Corry Evans and Dallas missing, who in the squad is ready to take on the role?

Uncapped, but not fresh faced

Accrington Stanley v Bolton Wanderers – Papa Johns Trophy – Semi Final – Wham Stadium
Bolton defender Eoin Toal is one of four uncapped players in the squad (PA)

With so many players missing, there is little surprise that O’Neill’s squad includes four uncapped players. But where Baraclough’s reign became known for a string of players graduating from the under-21s, the team Baraclough previously managed, only Everton teenager Isaac Price fits into that category this time. Instead, O’Neill has called up 24-year-old Bolton defender Eoin Toal, and 27-year-old midfielders Sean Goss and Cameron McGeehan of Motherwell and Ostend respectively. Both Goss and McGeehan previously earned call-ups under O’Neill, both in 2018, but were forced to withdraw through injury, while Toal has played at every level for the country from under-15s upwards.

Strong start

O’Neill has always emphasised the importance of making a strong start to a qualifying campaign in order to instil belief in the squad that they might be capable of advancing, and this time is no different. A draw alongside Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and San Marino is about as good as Northern Ireland could ask for from pot five, and an opening fixture against San Marino is the ideal opportunity to get three points on the board. San Marino have never won a competitive match, and indeed have only one victory, in a friendly against Liechtenstein in 2004, since their first official match in 1990.