Two squads who have made a pretty substantial mess of their Nations League campaigns meet in Dublin for an “O’Neill derby” which could, in light of the present political situation, be considered ill-timed. The Republic, hosts for tonight, are currently in what might be termed the “late O’Neill era”. Regardless of the result in this game, the leathering which almost certainly awaits in Copenhagen next Monday may well be the final straw after more than a year of shoddy performances.
For Northern Ireland, the M. O’Neill at the helm is still well thought of, although some of the shine has been tarnished by three defeats in three Nations League outings – home and away to Bosnia, and last month in Austria. However, Michael O’Neill has some defence to point to in that Northern Ireland have seen a number of players retire and he has taken the decision at this point to rejuvenate his squad. Northern Ireland’s pain right now seems likely to be shorter-term than that of their Southern cousins.
Republic of Ireland vs Northern Ireland Prediction: Republic of Ireland 1-1 Northern Ireland
These are two sides that, even in their heydays, have always tended to win games with committed team performances rather than individual brilliance. Outside of the Robbie Keane era for the hosts, neither side has ever really had a top-class international striker. Right now, the most prolific forward on either side is Kyle Lafferty. In what is sure to be a game long on passion and effort, but extremely short on flair, we can expect both sides to score once, but it would be a surprise if either got more than that. This is liable to be a game that will leave neither side particularly happy at the end, but both feeling it could have been worse.
Our recommended tip: Score Draw
A game in the middle of November between two sides that rely heavily on work-rate ahead of skill; we can say right now that the ball is going to spend very little time on the ground here. You can expect hearty battles in both penalty areas, and 22 or more players to come off with a few new bruises for their collections. It could end up 0-0, but it seems more likely that both teams will profit from at least one of the set-pieces that are likely to punctuate this game at regular intervals. Paddy Power’s 7/2 (4.50) odds on a score draw look tempting.
Over the years, given the history on the island of Ireland, a lot of effort has gone into keeping these sides apart. During the short-lived “Nations Cup”, in which both sides competed with Wales and Scotland, the Republic delivered a 5-0 thrashing at this stadium in 2011 – but Northern Ireland have improved considerably since then.
The standout meeting between the two came on the 16th of November 1993 – almost exactly a quarter-century ago – when the Republic travelled north needing at least point to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Look out the story of the night online, as it is too long and too gobsmacking to relate in full here. Suffice it to say, the Republic got their point and qualified on a truly surreal night.
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Players to watch: James McClean & Kyle Lafferty
James McClean’s reputation as a controversial, divisive figure distracts from one key point. The winger – born north of the border in Derry, but having chosen to represent the Republic – is one of very few players to have put in regular performances for his country over the past couple of years. McClean’s playing style could fairly be summed up as “perspiration over inspiration”, but as the top active goalscorer for the Boys in Green, he’s liable to play a huge part here. He certainly won’t be a shrinking violet.
Kyle Lafferty is something of a conundrum. The Rangers forward has had his issues with management at international level, often seeming more interested in playing for his club. However, any time he takes the field for Northern Ireland, he looks born to play international football. With twenty goals at this level, it is he who Michael O’Neill will look to for attacking finesse tonight, and he may well provide it. He may not get a hero’s welcome in Celtic-daft Dublin, but it’s unlikely to faze him.