Northern Ireland host Kosovo at Windsor Park on Saturday in the first of their last two Nations League matches of this campaign.
After a four-game winless streak in June, the pressure is on manager Ian Baraclough, but the build-up to the game has been dominated by controversy surrounding veteran striker Kyle Lafferty.
Here, the PA news agency takes a look at the main talking points ahead of the game.
Lafferty sent home
The Irish FA announced on Friday morning that Northern Ireland’s second top scorer had been removed from Baraclough’s squad for those fixtures, 24 hours after his club Kilmarnock announced they had launched an investigation into a circulating video online which appeared to show him using alleged bigoted language. . The Irish FA statement also said Lafferty had been struggling with a back problem which Baraclough says would have ruled him out of Saturday’s game regardless, adding a layer of ambiguity as to the precise reason for his withdrawal. . Questions about it at Friday’s press conference were shut down in often tense encounters, and the issue has now largely eclipsed the build-up to an important game.
On Thursday night it looked likely that Lafferty would be sent home after Kilmarnock announced an investigation into the video, although confirmation did not come until the following day. Even so, Baraclough opted not to bring in a substitute for the Kosovo game and the ensuing trip to Greece. Baraclough was at the Blanchflower Stadium on Thursday afternoon to watch the Northern Ireland Under-21s suffer a 3-1 defeat to Scotland, but he allowed Dale Taylor, the 18-year-old who earned a senior selection last November, to travel with John Schofield’s side to St Mirren for a return match next week.
Nations League Hoodoo
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Nations League is no friend to Northern Ireland. They remain winless in the history of this competition, 14 games and counting. Relegation to League C was supposed to ease the end of this miserable run, but instead they endured a hugely frustrating June, drawing twice with lowly Cyprus and being beaten at home by Greece and outside in Kosovo. Now the threat of relegation to League D is real and Northern Ireland face the prospect of a much tougher Euro 2024 qualifying draw as their coefficient rankings plummet with every setback. The end of this race is long overdue.
Kosovo sits 106th in the FIFA World Rankings, 48 places below Northern Ireland, but that ranking may have more to do with its youth as a federation than its quality. A squad made up of players from several of Europe’s top divisions and led by former France midfielder Alain Giresse proved more than a match for Northern Ireland in Pristina in June, when Baraclough’s side lost 3-2.
As the setbacks piled up in June, Baraclough spent more and more time talking about the “10 to 12” players the team was missing. That number extended to several players who wouldn’t be regulars in the squad even if fit, but there was no doubt that Northern Ireland were depleted in both numbers and match form. , with a considerable percentage of the squad several weeks out of their last competitive game. . This time around, with the leagues in full swing, Baraclough spoke of a different vibe inside the camp, with fitter and fresher players, and players like Josh Magennis, Corry Evans, Shane Ferguson , Tom Flanagan, Jamal Lewis and Conor Hazard all back.