Two of the surprise qualifiers for France 2016 meet in Cardiff with both teams looking to build momentum going into the finals.
Wales are missing their two key players in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, albeit for very different reasons. Wales’ manager Chris Coleman claimed that Bale’s absence was a joint decision between the Football Association of Wales and Real Madrid. Right, the Welsh FA thought it a sensible idea to leave their best player out of their squad for key warm-up games just prior to a major championship. Of course they did.
Bale was also absent from the November friendly with the Netherlands after ‘correspondence’ with Real Madrid in what has distinct echoes of Ryan Giggs’ continued unavailability for numerous friendlies during his international career. Arsenal midfielder Ramsey is genuinely injured of course.
Bereft of those two players, Coleman’s team does lack the game changers that would normally make them the bet to beat Northern Ireland. It looks a much more even game without them. With Reading forward Hal Robson-Kanu another injury doubt, Wales look decidedly short of a significant goal threat.
The uncapped duo of Queen’s Park Rangers striker Conor Washington and Peterborough United defender Michael Smith have both been called up by Michael O’Neill, with the former looking to have a good chance of establishing himself as a starting option in France given O’Neill’s relative lack of options.
Not losing this match is arguably more important for both teams than winning it ahead of Euro 2016, with neither wanting to go to France on the back of a run of poor results. This game could be quite cautious, particularly given that the home team is missing their two players of real quality. In qualifying, Wales only conceded four goals in their 10 games, whilst the Northern Ireland rearguard was only breached a still highly-credable eight times.
The first-half could be especially tight, with both teams looking stronger defensively than they do going forward and neither manager likely to be too adventurous early on.