Northern Ireland will play the penultimate match of their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign away to Finland on Friday.
On their last visit to Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium, Northern Ireland earned a point from a 1-1 draw in October 2015 to secure top spot in their group as they qualified for Euro 2016, but the context is very different this time.
Michael O’Neill’s injury-hit side have won just two of their eight Euro 2024 qualifiers so far – both against San Marino – and will be happy to see the back of this campaign after Monday’s match at home to Denmark.
Here the PA news agency looks at the key talking points ahead of Friday’s game.
The hits keep coming
Northern Ireland squad update
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) November 15, 2023
Injuries have been a constant theme throughout a campaign in which Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans and Shane Ferguson will not kick a ball.
But this week has seemed particularly cruel, with five players withdrawing – not least captain Jonny Evans and goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell – in the week since O’Neill named what was already an inexperienced squad last week.
It means 12 players are now out with injury, while Shea Charles is suspended for Friday’s match. O’Neill’s resources have never been more stretched than they are now.
With Paul Smyth, Paddy Lane and Brad Lyons joining Evans and Peacock-Farrell in pulling out of this trip, O’Neill has drafted in Ross McCausland, Caolan Boyd-Munce, Terry Devlin, Michael Forbes and Stephen McMullan.
All five are uncapped at senior level, while nine players in O’Neill’s squad have yet to reach double figures in caps.
Indeed, only Paddy McNair, Josh Magennis, George Saville, Jordan Thompson, Jamal Lewis and Conor Washington have more than 20 to their name. This is a very raw group.
A big opportunity for Hazard
With Peacock-Farrell out Conor Hazard is in line to start in Helsinki, the city where he enjoyed a loan spell in 2022, playing 39 games for HJK.
The 25-year-old will be up against plenty of familiar faces with four members of Finland’s squad – Arrtu Hoskonen, Pyry Peltola, Miro Tenho and Lucas Lingham – having been team-mates of his in the Finnish capital.
Hazard has made only one previous competitive appearance for Northern Ireland, last month in the 3-0 win over San Marino, although he played the full 90 minutes without needing to make a save.
But since then Hazard has lost the number one spot at Sky Bet Championship club Plymouth after Mike Cooper returned from nine months out with a ruptured ACL.
Signs of progress?
Despite everything that has gone wrong for Northern Ireland so far, O’Neill is adamant he has seen signs of progress in his side as he looks to develop young players who can spearhead future qualifying campaigns.
Players like Charles, Trai Hume and Isaac Price are starting to make their mark on this side and could now be considered contenders for regular playing time even within a fully-fit squad, while Daniel Ballard is emerging as a leader at the back.
But there is also frustration that players such as Conor Bradley, who could have really established himself over the past few months, have also been missing for most of the campaign with injury.
Saville’s big night
George Saville will take the armband for Friday’s match to mark the occasion the Millwall midfielder earns a landmark 50th cap.
The 30-year-old’s unfashionable role in midfield means has rarely been one to excite the Green and White Army during his international career, and while he may have scored a beauty against Sheffield Wednesday at the weekend, he is yet to break his duck for Northern Ireland.
But with seasoned internationals in desperately short supply, Saville’s experience has rarely been more important to the team.