INTERNATIONAL football fanatic Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) previews Friday night's international friendly from Belfast.
Northern Ireland v New Zealand | Friday 19:45 | Premier Sports
Northern Ireland welcome New Zealand to Windsor Park on Friday night for a friendly international but both nations will be keen to find form with crucial summer contests on the horizon.
Michael O'Neill's hosts are well place in their bid to qualify next year's World Cup and in doing so the Green and White Army’s boss could make history as the country’s first manager to go to back-to-back major tournaments.
The boys from Belfast have picking up 10 points from their first five fixtures in Group C and know victory over Azerbaijan next week would push Norn Iron into pole position to land a play-off spot on the road to Russia 2018.
Norn Iron missing key personnel
However, a few key players are missing, leaving O’Neill’s squad looking a little thin on the ground. Conor Washington is getting married while Jamie Ward and Will Grigg are injured, and Corry Evans and Paddy McNair remain out.
Elsewhere, there are fitness concerns surrounding Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart, while striker Kyle Lafferty hasn’t played any competitive football since a five-minute outing against Norway in March and has since been released by Norwich.
Accrington forward Shay McCartan was handed a first call-up while Southend's Adam Thompson, Burton’s Tom Flanagan plus players like Matthew Lund and Paul Paton will hope to grab an opportunity to catch O'Neill's eye against the Kiwis.
In the absence of Washington, Ward, Grigg and potentially Lafferty, we should expect to see Scottish Premiership top scorer Liam Boyce – fresh from scoring 23 goals in 34 games for Ross County this season – and Charlton’s Josh Magennis get game time in attack.
New Zealand name experienced squad
New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson has named an experienced squad for a tour to Ireland and the summer’s Confederations Cup. The All Whites staged a training camp in Auckland last week and are keen to build on solid recent performances.
The Kiwis might be ranked 112th in the world but a trip to the US at the back end of last year brought about only a 2-1 loss to Mexico and 1-1 draw against the States. The All Whites were competitive in both encounters whilst they remain unbeaten in the tame stage three of Oceania qualifying for the FIFA World Cup.
At the time of writing, New Zealand’s U20s made history by becoming the first Kiwi team to progress out of their pool on foreign soil; captain Clayton Lewis and key defender Dane Ingham have since linked up with the seniors. The talented pair have been hugely influential with the underage team and offer plenty of promise.
Chris Wood – top goalscorer in the Championship with Leeds – will skipper the squad seeing as regular captain Winston Reid is absent. It means the All Whites should still provide a threat in forward areas for this fixture.
New Zealand have suffered just one reverse in 16 – the aforementioned defeat to Mexico – but it’s often hard to find worthwhile opposition outside of their Oceania region. And Hudson’s charges are often outclassed when they do.
In fact, since 2010 the only wins the Kiwis have recorded when excluding Oceania have come against Oman, Saudi Arabia and Honduras. The visitors have been beaten by the likes of Thailand, Uzbekistan, UAE and Jamaica across the same sample of games.
Northern Ireland are fully focussed on achieving qualification for the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and whilst they’ve suffered a solitary loss in 13 at Windsor Park – recording six clean sheets in seven – we must also be aware of the individuals that won’t be involved before backing the home side.
The betting angle
The hosts are a best-priced 13/20 (Marathon) to collect a victory and considering the Green and White Army have ran out winners in three of their last four friendly fixtures in Belfast ‘to nil’ suggests they should have enough.
Croatia are the only team to beat O’Neill’s troops in a non-competitive match here in five years so I’m keen to support the home side but I’ll avoid backing ‘to nil’ at skinny prices with Corry Evans and McNair unavailable.
Instead I’m backing Northern Ireland to win and Under 3.5 Goals – a selection that covers the 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 and 2-1 correct scores. Norn Iron don’t boast the firepower to blow the Kiwis away. For those that are keen, the 1-0 win is 24/5 (888).
The Belfast boys have seen none of their last 13 outings feature successful Both Teams To Score selections whilst 10 of their past 12 home wins arriving alongside a clean sheet.
Northern Ireland v New Zealand – Northern Ireland to win and Under 3.5 Goals (21/20 Ladbrokes)