Northern Ireland vs Switzerland – Thursday, November 9, 7:45 BT/8:45 CET, National Football Stadium, Belfast
Finally, the dream ended in Paris. It had been a magical few weeks for Northern Ireland, beating Ukraine and restricting Germany in the group stages of the European Championship, before drawing Wales in the last-16. The French capital was a sea of beer-soaked camaraderie, choruses of ‘Will Grigg’s on Fire!’ echoing around the Parc des Princes. After 30 years in the wilderness, Northern Ireland were back in the big time. When Gareth McAuley slid a Welsh cross into his own net, however, it was all over.
Nobody expected the miracle to be repeated. Michael O’Neill was a talented manager, but his goalkeeper and best defender were clubless. With a challenging World Cup Qualifying Group pitting them against Germany, the Czech Republic and Norway, even the Green and White Army waited in hope rather than expectation.
“I think we just have to stick to what we’ve done”. Stephen Davis told the BBC ahead of the biggest game of his career on Thursday.
Sound advice for a team whose only loss arrived against the World Champions a month ago. Northern Ireland have been a revelation in Group C, finishing four points ahead of their nearest rivals after conceding just six goals in qualifying–less than Serbia, Poland and Italy.
Morale is sky-high. A country with a smaller population than Paris finds itself on the brink of its second consecutive tournament. The last time Northern Ireland played at a World Cup, Jimmy Nicholl was an oaken right back keeping out the likes of Socrates and Zico in Guadalajara. 31 years later, he’ll be sitting beside Michael O’Neill in the dugout, an assistant manager hoping to watch his players make their own history.
Switzerland will be keen to spoil the party. Vladimir Petkovic’s side coasted to 27 points in qualifying, beating European Champions Portugal 2-0 at home and only missing out on the top spot on goal difference. Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Ricardo Rodriguez have the quality to end Northern Ireland’s hopes in an instant, while Haris Seferovic can be dangerous if he feels like it.
Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans will, however, be confident of stopping a man who’s scored just four times in qualifying. With Jamie Ward and Paddy McNair coming back into contention, O’Neill can call upon a full squad for Thursday night’s game, and will hope that the famous Windsor Park atmosphere will cajole his team into a historic result.
Northern Ireland vs Switzerland – Player to look out for:
Steven Davis #8 – Northern Ireland
What a game to make your 100th international appearance. Since making his debut against Canada 12 years ago, Steven Davis has been one of Northern Ireland’s most accomplished performers, a crucial standard bearer for a squad containing just four Premier League players. The 32-year-old is a whirring presence in midfield, whose excellent range of passing can hurt the Swiss if given the opportunity.
Denis Zakaria #8– Switzerland
“Honestly, there was no desired opponent”, Denis Zakaria told Swiss media in midweek, when asked if he’d hoped his side drew Northern Ireland. For all his humility, however, Borussia Monchengladbach’s elegant midfielder will relish the game on Thursday. After impressing last year for Young Boys, the Swiss has improved immeasurably in his first year in the Bundesliga, and his eye for a defence-splitting pass could prove lethal to Northern Ireland’s World Cup hopes.
Northern Ireland v Switzerland – Match Stats
- The teams have met just four times in their history. The hosts have the advantage, winning two and losing just one.
- This will be the first time the two sides meet in a competitive fixture.
- Northern Ireland have won four of their last five home games.
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Northern Ireland vs Switzerland – 1-0
Formation: 3-5-2 / 5-3-2
McGovern – McAuley – J. Evans – Hodson– McLaughlin – Brunt – Davis – C. Evans –Norwood– Magennis – Lafferty
Coach: Michael O’Neill
Sommer – Rodriguez – Schar – Djourou – Lichtsteiner – Xhaka – Zakaria – Mehmedi – Dzemaili – Shaqiri – Seferovic
Coach: Vladimir Petković
Chris Weir is a Senior Writer for These Football Times and has appeared on The Guardian, TalkSPORT and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @chrisw45