It’s crunch time in Group 3 of League B. Northern Ireland face an away double-header in the UEFA Nations League this weekend, a competition which nobody really knows if they should be taking seriously. Friday evening sees the Green and White Army make the trip to Vienna to face Austria before they will fly to Sarajevo to attempt to avenge the 1-2 defeat suffered at the hands of Bosnia in Belfast a month ago.
Let’s take things in chronological order and have a look at Friday night’s match-up at the Stade Ernst-Happel. Around 3000 Northern Ireland fans are making the trip to the Austrian capital with many then heading to Bosnia for Monday night’s match hoping for a positive pair of results to set up a potentially lucrative final group match with Austria in Belfast in November. Northern Ireland and Austria both sit pointless in Group 3 having both been beaten by a limited but well organised Bosnia side.
The Ulstermen were handed a huge boost this week when Bayern Munich announced on their website that left-back David Alaba, Austria’s most high-profile player, would be missing the fixture after picking up a minor injury in their most recent league match. Also missing is 30-year-old captain Julian Baumgartlinger – which may not seem like as big a boost as the Alaba injury, but it does leave inexperienced duo Florian Grillitsch and Peter Zulj in central midfield. The pair have less than 20 international caps between them, in contrast to the likely Northern Irish midfield pairing of Steve Davis and Oliver Norwood, who boast 158 appearances at this level.
Austria have recently had some joy using a 3-4-3 formation with Watford’s Sebastien Prodl complementing Hinteregger and Leipzig’s Ilsanker at the back. Salzburg’s right-back Stefan Lainer doesn’t need an invitation to get forward which explains his role at wing-back to provide balance for Alaba on the other side. It will be interesting to see whether Marko Arnautovic will play centrally as he has done for the last 12 months at West Ham, or out wide where he has lined up mostly for the national side.
Where the goals will come from will be a huge concern for both sides. Arnautovic is the obvious threat for the home team but if Northern Ireland can successfully cut off the supply line to the front man, nobody else in the Austrian squad has more than five international goals at this level. Similarly for Northern Ireland, strikers Kyle Lafferty and Conor Washington are unavailable and none of Josh Magennis, Liam Boyce or Will Grigg have shown themselves capable of leading the line on their own in recent times. Will Michael O’Neill opt for two up front? It seems unlikely away from home but it would allow him to play the 3-5-2 system which he likes and mimick Foda’s three man defence.
Davis, Norwood and Saville will almost certainly be the midfield regardless of the formation so it is the wide areas where Michael will have to make his toughest decisions and none of his options are exactly making a strong case for selection. Stuart Dallas’ work-rate could prove invaluable in an away fixture but he’s struggling for regular game time at Leeds United, Niall McGinn got the nod for the Bosnia match but faded after a bright start. Jordan Jones is an exciting talent but hasn’t been massively convincing when given an opportunity in a green shirt and I suspect the game may come slightly too soon for the promising Gavin Whyte.
At right back, Paddy McNair massively impressed in the friendly against Israel last month and his dead-ball delivery could prove to be a source of goals in what will likely be a tight match. On the other side, Millwall’s Shane Ferguson has impressed recently, albeit in a more advanced role. Jamal Lewis however, will feel he has done nothing to warrant losing his place in the starting eleven.
For Bosnia however, it would make sense to start with the team that finished the last match in Belfast. No Kyle Lafferty gives O’Neill the perfect opportunity to do so. Liam Boyce and Will Grigg caused the staunch Bosnian defence some serious problems, the two linked up for Northern Ireland’s consolation goal and almost did the same again in the final minutes to snatch what would have been a richly deserved point. If Northern Ireland are to win the group, they mathematically would have to win in Bosnia on Monday night to stand any chance. A draw would leave Bosnia on 7 points meaning that even if Northern Ireland were to beat Austria home and away, they would only attain 7 points in the group with the Bosnians possessing the superior head-to-head record.
Four points from these two matches, providing the win is in Bosnia, would set Northern Ireland up for a massive match at Windsor Park against Austria in November. It is worth noting that if two teams are level on points at the end of the group, head-to-head records are taken into consideration before goal difference. That means a 0-1 win for Northern Ireland in Bosnia, as wonderful a result as it would be, unfortunately may not prove to be enough with the Bosnians having scored two goals at Windsor Park.
Plenty of permutations but let’s hope for two positive results over this international break to rekindle spirits after last month’s loss.