Bet of the Day: Northern Ireland for low-scoring win over EstoniaPublished on: March 21, 2019Author: Antonia Kelly
Love it or hate it, international football is back! And while club managers and fans will wait patiently for the European Championship qualifiers to be over, in the hope that key players survive the week ahead before getting back to the weekly bread and butter, for more than a few fans this is what football is all about. Northern Ireland supporters, for example, will be eagerly awaiting the next chapter of the Michael O’Neill era. Back in 2016, the Green And White Army had their first taste of tournament football for three decades; now they’re hungry for more.
Their bid to get back among the pageantry of a summer spectacle starts tonight in Belfast, and they could have picked worse opponents. While fixtures against Holland and Germany lie ahead, tonight’s game against Estonia represents a chance for O’Neill’s men to get the campaign off to a winning start. Alternatively, a draw or a loss will puncture the optimism of the fans before it really has a chance to get going. In today’s Bet of the Day feature, we’ll look at the best punts to place if you’re thinking of watching the game.
A strong start is NI’s best chance
A look at recent fixtures presents a problem for Northern Ireland – they’ve won only two of their last thirteen games, and those were friendlies against South Korea and Israel. A Nations League campaign which pitted them against Austria and Bosnia-Herzegovina saw them play four games and lose all four. That’s after a World Cup qualifying campaign that ended with consecutive defeats against Germany and Norway, and a play-off where they lost 1-0 on aggregate to Switzerland. Form-wise, things could be better.
That said, there are justifiable reasons not to let that record cloud your betting judgement. Despite a shocking World Cup, Germany are still a fine team. Beating Norway would not have changed anything – NI had secured a playoff spot and couldn’t improve on their second place in the group. As for the Nations League, O’Neill did take the opportunity to blood a new generation of players in order to avoid entering this campaign too dependent on elder statesmen such as Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes. Exciting younger players like Jamal Lewis and Paul Smyth have emerged in the last year, and this is a rejuvenated Northern Irish squad.
As such, expect them to have enough to overcome Estonia, whose own recent record gives no indication they are up to winning here. Their last three international wins have come against Greece, Lithuania and Vanuatu. Paddy Power are offering 11/10 on the hosts to lead at half-time and win, and that’s a good price.
Speaking of good starts…
In any game against a lower-tier side at this level, the key for a team in Northern Ireland’s shoes is to avoid frustration. Estonia, lacking any truly remarkable attacking talent, will likely set out to ensure a stalemate and it will be important for the hosts to avoid encouraging that. We should see O’Neill adopting a progressive approach, setting out to get ahead early on and deny the visitors a chance of sitting back in the hope of snaffling a point. Kyle Lafferty will likely start as a target man, with pacier support players getting forward to feed off secondary possession.
There’s plenty of pace around, too, with Niall McGinn of Aberdeen always a threat. Northern Ireland will be looking to score early, and McGinn will be at the Estonian defence from the opening whistle. William Hill have a boosted special price of 7/2 on a goal being scored in the first 15 minutes by either side – that’s worth getting on, given that the home side will be keen not to let their opponents settle.
Don’t expect a blowout
While O’Neill likes his side to get forward when they can – and particularly so against theoretically weaker opposition – it’s reasonable to say that Northern Ireland have lacked a truly incisive goalscorer since the retirement of David Healy. Lafferty is their top scorer, but his 20 goals in 70 international caps doesn’t represent a fantastic return. More than a third of them have come against Liechtenstein, San Marino and the Faroe Islands, too, so it’s fair to say he’s not lethal against even mediocre opposition. He doesn’t need to be, mind you – his value is in the ability he has to get among defenders and hold the ball up.
That said, the absence of a more clinical goalscorer means that we’re unlikely to see the hosts run up a cricket score against Estonia. 1-0 would be more than satisfactory, and O’Neill himself would admit he’d snatch your hand off for a 2-0 or above. As such, it’s worth getting on 888’s odds of 13/25 that there will be fewer than 2.5 goals in the game. With Estonia offering little going forward themselves, this is not going to be a goalfest unless the respective defences are having a really poor time of it. Northern Ireland are good enough to be confident of winning here, but not to expect a thrashing.
Bets of the Day
Northern Ireland HT/FT (11/10, Paddy Power); A goal in the first 15 minutes (William Hill, 7/2); Fewer than 2.5 goals (888, 13/25)
Both teams to score in the second half