Euro 2016 qualifiers: Northern Ireland target historic Greece win
Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland have become one of the surprise packages of Euro 2016 qualifying, and are on the brink of securing a spot in their first major tournament in 30 years when they host Group F rivals Greece.
Windsor Park in Belfast could be the venue for a historic night, as Northern Ireland prepare to challenge for three points which would see them top their group standings and assure a place in France next summer.
The hosts are 8/5 with Coral to clinch a famous victory on their home patch, while Greece are 23/10 to spoil the party with a win on their travels, though the visitors currently sit rock-bottom without a single triumph.
Two draws against Greece and then Finland in their final fixture would also be enough, but O’Neill’s men will want to get the job done at the first attempt in front of their own fans, with missing out on history not on the agenda.
The Green and White Army last experienced a major international tournament during the 1986 World Cup, and Northern Ireland winger Jamie Ward has praised the positive impact of O’Neill since taking charge.
“When I first came in results never really went for us, and I was lucky to get a game under Nigel [Worthington],” said Nottingham Forest player Ward.
“A lot of things have changed since then, we seem to have got some shape about us, we’ve been structured in the way Michael wants us be when we’ve not got the ball. Younger, fresher legs help too, new blood always does. The place has been freshened up with new players.
“Maybe the players who’ve come in have wanted to prove a point that they can play at this level and do a job. Michael wasn’t afraid to change the squad and bring in new faces, which the previous regime was.
“I think he’s proved how good he is. Taking this job he had nothing to lose because did anyone really expect us to do anything? Not really. He’s helped prove we’re good enough.”
O’Neill has saw his squad weakened ahead of the Greece clash though, with West Bromwich Albion defender Jonny Evans being ruled out with a hamstring injury sustained during recent club duty against Crystal Palace.
It’s a further blow to Northern Ireland, who are also without several suspended stars, including talisman Kyle Lafferty, whose goals have been the key source of success, along with Derby County defender Chris Baird and Fleetwood right-back Conor McLaughlin.
“Obviously the injury to Jonny at the weekend was a blow, but one thing I have noticed in those three days, maybe more so than in the past, is that the squad is stronger now than at any time I’ve been in charge,” said O’Neill. “I genuinely believe that we have the players to step in and deal with this game.”
Northern Ireland have never qualified for the Euro finals, but are on the verge of history and, with Lafferty suspended, it means another frontman has the chance to fire his nation to history.
Forest forward Ward is 7/4 to strike anytime and 6/1 to net last, having done so when the two nations last met in October last year, when Northern Ireland emerged with a 2-0 victory in Greece.
For the travelling Greeks, Under-21 coach Kostas Tsanas continues to act as interim boss following the sacking of Uruguayan Sergio Markarian earlier this year, but will be without Roma defender Kostas Manolas, who is suspended, and injured Bayer Leverkusen defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos.
Benfica forward Kostas Mitroglou, on loan from Championship side Fulham, will be the key attacking threat for Greece, and is 15/8 to dispatch anytime.
Northern Ireland have fate in their own hands, with a win on home soil set to cause a frenzy among their supporters on what could potentially be a historic night in Belfast.
Coral’s top tip: Jamie Ward to score anytime at a superb 7/4