It’s been a big week of international football so far with games every day since last Wednesday, but there’s no let up in the action with yet more fixtures on Monday evening. Northern Ireland and Wales are both in action after playing out a 1-1 draw against each other last Thursday evening in Cardiff. The former welcome Slovenia to Belfast, while the latter will travel to Ukraine for a stern examination against a strong European side.
Although it must be remembered that Wales were missing eight of their influential squad players last week – most notably Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey – it was Northern Ireland who came out of the match with the most credit after taking the lead through Watford’s Craig Cathcart, only to be pegged back by a late Simon Church penalty.
Boss Michael O’Neill said that his side got “everything they needed” from the friendly draw, having had the opportunity to give 17 players some game time and experiment with different systems throughout the course of the match. Although they are winless in 18 away friendlies since 2006, he will have been pleased with his team’s approach and application, and can look forward to Monday evening’s game with Slovenia.
Wales boss Chris Coleman also said there were “lots of positive” to come out of his side’s performance on the night, praising his team’s mentality and attitude and pointing out that his squad has plenty of strength in depth ahead of the European Championship in the summer.
Northern Ireland v Slovenia
Northern Ireland return to Belfast on Monday night to take on Slovenia, and they look a shade overpriced at +163 with Marathonbet.
Slovenia fell at the final hurdle of Euro qualification, losing out to Ukraine in the play-offs after finishing third in Group E behind England and Switzerland. The highlight of their qualifying campaign was probably a 1-0 win over the Swiss, but a defeat at the hands of Estonia and a 1-1 draw with Lithuania cost them dearly in the chase for 2nd place in the group. They are a solid and competent side, but there is no doubt that they are far better on home soil than on their travels.
Slovenia have been beaten nine times in their last eleven away internationals, with defeats against the likes of Qatar and Estonia.
For Northern Ireland this is another chance to build confidence ahead of the Euro’s in the summer, and they’ve been remarkably consistent for some time now. Often considered one of European football’s minnows, they have turned things around under Michael O’Niell and finished top of their qualification group ahead of Romania and Hungary. They are now unbeaten in nine matches home and away, with four wins and five draws.
They’ve also made home ground something of a fortress, and you have to go back as far as 2013 for their last defeat on Irish soil – a 4-2 reverse at the hands of Portugal in a World Cup qualifier. Since then they’ve won four and drawn three of seven internationals, including victories over the likes of Greece and Finland. Neither of those sides are appreciably worse than Slovenia, and Northern Ireland will be quietly confident of getting a positive result.
Kyle Lafferty got some valuable minutes under his belt against Wales, and the striker has joined Birmingham on loan until the end of the season in a bid to improve his match fitness ahead of the Euros. He will be vital to Northern Ireland chances in the summer, and if anyone is likely to get on the scoresheet on Monday night it would be no surprise if it was him.
Ukraine v Wales
They are missing several key players as mentioned, but they’ve been a tough team to break down on their travels recently, and they’ve only lost once in the last five away internationals. Ukraine huffed and puffed to a 1-0 win over minnows Cyprus last Thursday evening, and although entirely dominant, it was possibly a lesser result than they had been expecting.
Both teams will line up for the Euros in France in the summer, and it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise to see Wales post their second draw in a week in this game. Ukraine have been held to home draws in recent friendlies against Latvia and Lithuania, and were beaten by Spain at home back in October. They have won four of the last five internationals in front of their own fans, but those victories were against Luxembourg, Slovenia, Belarus and Cyprus – hardly big-hitters on the world stage.
Wales will present a much tougher challenge and as the away side can also sit back and look to hit Ukraine on the break. At home to Northern Ireland last week the onus was on the Welsh to take the game to the opposition, and without the craft and guile of Bale and Ramsey they found it hard to break down a resolute defence. Being the underdog probably suits Chris Coleman’s side better and the onus here will be on Ukraine to do the probing while Wales will be able to stay organized and attempt to break in numbers.
Northern Ireland to beat Slovenia
Monday 28th March, 19:45 GMT
Wales or Draw double chance
Monday 28th March, 19:00 GMT