This weekend, Northern Ireland take on the US in an International friendly, but not before the Green and White Army first travel to Italy for the start of their World Cup Qualifying Campaign.
All three nations are in unique positions. Northern Ireland find themselves in the midst of a ‘changing of the guard’ period, with aging key players likely to retire from the International game in the next year or so. The US, in the midst of a surge of popularity and expectation, find many of their stars making a mark in Europe & the growing MLS and continue to attract attention. The Italians, beginning to reemerge as a force after some difficult years which saw them fail to qualify for the 2018 Russian World Cup.
It’s a new era for the Northern Irish national team, as Ian Baraclough finds himself in the unenviable position of taking over from Michael O’Neill who had previously spent 9 years at the helm. Having drawn once in their last 5 games- with the other 4 ending in defeat- it is not the most glamorous start for the new manager, and highlights the uphill task Baraclough and his staff are set to face. But, isn’t the only concern, as the squad lacks a reliable keeper: Michael McGovern (36) finds himself third choice at Norwich City & on the brink of retirement, Peacock-Farrell (24) hasn’t been convincing when selected & has registered only one appearance in 2 years for Burnley, and Conor Hazard (22) is also not playing & highly inexperienced.
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Captain, Steven Davis (36) is still a quality footballer evident by his form this season at Rangers. The heart of their defence; Jonny Evans (33) and Craig Cathcart (32) are experienced and still play at a very high level, but will need to be on their best form.
The Northern Irish fans will be praying that Evans in particular- if selected- can recreate his club form for Leicester on the international stage, after several high profile mistakes in recent games for his country. Cathcart, on the other hand, has been extremely reliable for the Green and White Army- picking up the Northern Irish Personality of the Year for 2019– but finds himself struggling for a spot in an exciting Watford side, who currently have the second best defensive record in England.
Supporters will look to Leeds United’s Stuart Dallas (29) to continue to perform, and help the next generation of younger players settle into this new changing era. He is arguably their biggest attacking threat- which says a lot considering he is often deployed at right-back, again, showing issues that the squad faces. Michael Smith (32) a right-back by-trade, has done well in the last few games at central-midfield, and many would like to see him rewarded for those performances with a start against Italy.
A few odd squad selections are prevalent, however, specifically Niall McGinn, who has barely played for Aberdeen this season. Yet, Paul Smyth, someone Irish League fans will know well, has played 26 times for Accrington Stanley this season; surely, this merits a call up over a non-playing, aging winger? Another interesting selection is the returning Ciaron Brown, who has consistently started for Livingstone this season before his loan from Cardiff came to an end. Scottish-Capped youth international Matthew Kennedy returns to the senior squad (Northern Ireland being the country of his birth); he will look to add to his one senior cap. The winger has played regularly for Aberdeen this season, although is only just on his way back from injury.
Going forward, it’s easy to see that their strikers do not score enough. Liam Boyce has done well in spells but reports are touting he will be missing from the squad. Conor Washington tries hard but has pulled out from the squad also due to injury. Josh Magennis, a player who often gives everything, is concerning fans with his lack of goals.
Furthermore, both Boyce and MaGennis are over the age of 30. The less said about Lafferty the better as the striker- who is onto his 14th club- has yet to settle at club level and usually is on his way somewhere new after six months or a year. He has recently returned to Scottish football with Kilmarnock under Tommy Wright, who was previously considered favourite for manager. I personally feel Kyle Lafferty’s international days should be over but it appears Barraclough will start him during these games regardless.
As an Irish League fan, I am delighted to see an Irish League player selected for the squad over veteran players who are struggling for first-team game time. Shayne Lavery (Linfield) makes the squad, albeit, due to Conor Washington’s injury, in my opinion he should have made the squad anyway. Lavery has scored 19 goals so far this season with Linfield currently sitting top of the league- where most Irish League fans expect them to finish.
Goalkeeper Conor Devlin would be another player I feel could merit inclusion; he consistently plays & has been training full time. Although this might not be the Devlin form wise that we saw at Clintonville several years ago, some would argue he is still the best keeper in the Irish League.
The Green and White Army really are at the end of an era; Gareth McAuley has retired, Oliver Norwood has made himself unavailable for selection, Steven Davis, and Jonny Evans, Michael Smith, Craig Cathcart, Michael McGovern are all in their 30s. Michael O’Neill got everything he could out of the squad and now the rebuild begins. It will take time. Let’s hope the fans back the manager during this transition. Prior to the US game, they play Italy in their opening World Cup Qualifier. If they concede a fair few in Italy, we could see the squad’s confidence drop exceptionally low going into the home friendly at Windsor Park.
Contrary to Northern Ireland, Italy under Roberto Mancini have been quite impressive. The Italian Serie A is very competitive this season, with 5 teams confident with their chances at champions league qualification and the Europa League spots hotly contested, with quite a few young domestic players making an impact. This will give Italy and Mancini a lot of confidence. Expectation will be high for the Italians, and Northern Ireland won’t be expected to take anything from the game.
The Italians will build around champions elect Inter duo, Alessandro Bastoni & Nicolo Barella. I’d expect to see Ferderico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa representing Juventus also. Other familiar names featuring for the Italians should be Sandro Tonali (AC Milan), Jorginho (Chelsea), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) & Alessandro Florenzi (PSG).
Given the calibre of the Italian squad, more will expected when Northern Ireland played the United States at Windsor Park, but should it be? The US are unbeaten in their last 5 games, featuring 1 draw- against Wales- and will be coming over to Europe full of confidence.
This US squad contains many recognisable names for fans in Europe and, given the current pandemic, coupled with the MLS start date in April, only a few playing on US soil have been selected. US Manager Gregg Berhalter has his side playing extremely well and the US is experiencing a major growth in the sport at an elite level. [More can be heard on my podcast with FC Dallas youth Director, John Gall, available in April] Goalkeepers selected in the squad are, Zack Steffan (Manchester City) & Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), both playing for sides at the top of their respective leagues, albeit Steffan finds himself as the second-choice, behind Brazilian superstar Ederson, but both keepers are only 25 years old.
Some of the highlights in defence are, John Brooks (28 – Wolfsburg), Matt Miazga, formerly of Chelsea, (25 – Anderlecht), Chris Richards, on loan from Bayern Munich, (20 – Hoffenheim), Sergiño Dest, who scored 2 goals last weekend, (20 – Barcelona), Antonee Robinson (23 – Fulham), and Bryan Reynolds (19 – Roma). In stark contrast to Northern Ireland, the US is full of young talent and they will be expecting them, amongst others, to continue to blossom over the next few years.
The big surprise in my opinion is the exclusion Juventus’ Weston McKennie (22), who is having a sensational debut season in Turin. However, selected players such as Tyler Adams (22) is also having an excellent season with RB Leipzig, as is Brenden Aaronson (20) at RB Salzburg, both in title chases with their clubs. Yunus Musah (18) has played over 20 times for Valencia this season in very difficult circumstances for the Spanish Giants as they sit in the bottom half of La Liga.
It will also be interesting to see if Daryl Dike (20) will continue his recent good form for Barnsley (having joined in January on loan from Orlando SC) on the international stage. Dyke is a young tricky winger and has already set up a goal for his Yorkshire-based club against Brentford & even played against Chelsea in the FA Cup. He links up with the National squad coming off the back of two goals vs bottom-place Wycombe Wanderers last week.
Josh Sargent is a young striker playing in Germany for Werder Bremen; he should feature against Northern Ireland. Other notable attacking faces are Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic (22) & Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna (18). Lille’s title-chasing striker Timothy Weah (21), son of former AC Milan legend-turned politician George Weah, should start the game up front.
Expectations will be high for the US, whereas the Northern Irish fanbase will not feel much pressure. But, irrespective of quality players like Reyna and Pulisic, followers of the Green and White Army will still be clamouring for a positive result & probably take to social media to complain should they not get one.
I would expect a tough-to-break-down Northern Ireland side, trying to keep it tight and catch the US on the break with the pace of Gavin Whyte, while the US will look to extend a very good run of international results. Northern Ireland will need to press extremely hard, watching out for any space in behind for the pace of the American wide players & overlapping full backs. A friendly against a big side like the US is something Northern Ireland have needed and wanted for a while; it is a shame that fans will not be able to attend the game.
Bulgaria is next for Northern Ireland after Italy and the US, perhaps that is where we will see a true reflection of what is being done on the training pitch.
Let me know your feelings and thoughts on the upcoming International break; you can connect with me online on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @ThePottscast
Main image credit: