Four Northern Irish players will run the gauntlet in Poland, with the risk of missing their crucial home encounter with Slovakia. Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, George McCartney and Ryan McGivern all know that another misdemeanor will rule them out, although McGivern is likely to start on the bench. Captain Aaron Hughes and Stephen Craigan are almost certain to start, with the other three yellow-periled defenders vying for the remaining berths. Kyle Lafferty and Chris Brunt are available for selection after serving suspensions, but Chris Baird is definitely out. Lafferty, likely to be partnered with Martin Paterson or David Healy up front, feels he needs to kick start his season in Chorzow. He told the Belfast Telegraph, ‘It’s been a frustrating start to the season having to sit out, but the lads have done well at Rangers and I know it will be hard for me to get back into the team. It’s good for me to come away with Northern Ireland now and I feel ready after doing extra training because I haven’t been playing games.’
Poland, meanwhile, pose more than a wary threat. Ebi Smolarek. surprisingly still a free agent, has 19 international goals to his name and will cause huge problems with his height, whilst Jacek Kryznowek’s trickery could lead to a crucial goal. Captain Michal Zewlakow will be a tough nut to crack, so Northern Ireland will be have to be on top of their game to come away with anything.
My prediction? Northern Ireland to hold out for a score draw. Whilst they might not have the attacking flair of their Eastern European counterparts, their sheer grit and determination should see them come home with something. Expect it to be a long, hard slog.