NORTHERN IRELAND begin their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign with a home contest against Estonia on Thursday night. Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) sets the scene.
Northern Ireland v Estonia | Thursday 21st March 2019, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill acknowledges that his side must make the most of their opening two fixtures if they are to qualify for Euro 2020. Estonia and Belarus both travel to Windsor Park for games on Thursday and Sunday.
The Green & White Army head away to the same two teams in June before ending their campaign with four fixtures against Group C's top seeds, the Netherlands and Germany. In 2016, O'Neill led his side to their first European Championships after they topped their qualifying group in which they collected maximum points from the opening three games, and the importance of a fast start hasn’t been lost on the Norn Iron boss.
The hosts will be hoping to banish memories of their recent Nations League campaign where Northern Ireland lost all four encounters with Austria and Bosnia. However, three of those defeats arrived by a solitary goal margin, and although a few key personnel are unavailable or struggling for match fitness, there’s an expectation around Windsor Park.
O’Neill’s men have taken top honours in 11 of their last 16 games in Belfast dating back to October 2015; the only matches Norn Iron failed to win in that sequence came against Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Bosnia and Croatia – five nations rated significantly higher than Thursday night’s visitors Estonia.
Sure, some of Northern Ireland's most experienced players including Gareth McAuley and Kyle Lafferty are struggling for game time, whilst Oli Norwood’s decision to step away from international football is far from ideal. But Corry Evans should be fit enough to feature and Paddy McNair can fill-in at right-back with Michael Smith and Conor McLaughlin out.
Sixteen of the squad travelled to Euro 2016 in France and that continuity should serve the Irish well regardless. And I’d be surprised if Norn Iron weren’t able to overcome an Estonian side that’s renowned as poor travellers; the visitors have W3-D3-L12 in their past 18 away competitive outings since 2012 with victories arriving against Andorra, Gibraltar and Greece.
The betting angle
Estonia have been held to a 0-0 draw in San Marino during that aforementioned sample, failing to score in 11 of their most recent 14 meaningful matches away. With that in mind, I’m happy to oppose the guests here and support a Northern Ireland win alongside Under 3.5 Goals at 17/20 (Ladbrokes).
Eleven of Estonia’s past 14 competitive away days have featured fewer than four goals, whilst Northern Ireland have notched more than three goals at Windsor Park on only three occasions over the past 10 years. The home side tend to be organised at the back and a little light on star quality in the final-third.
Northern Ireland v Estonia – Northern Ireland to win and Under 3.5 Goals (17/20 Ladbrokes)