Talking points ahead of Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifier with San Marino

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Michael O’Neill’s second reign as Northern Ireland manager will get under way when his side face San Marino on Thursday night.

The first game of their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign comes before what is sure to be an emotional homecoming for O’Neill against Finland at Windsor Park this weekend.

Here the PA news agency looks at the key talking points before Thursday’s match.

The Return

Michael O’Neill File Photo
Michael O’Neill will be in charge for the first time since 2019 (Niall Carson/PA)

Depleted numbers

The squad that has travelled to San Marino is not the one O’Neill had hoped to pick. Stuart Dallas was always a long shot to make it as he continues his recovery from a broken leg, but he is just part of a long list of absentees that also includes Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Liam Boyce, Shayne Lavery and Conor McMenamin. With both the captain Davis and vice-captain Jonny Evans out, O’Neill is without a huge part of his established leadership group, not to mention players who would need no introduction to what he wants from his side.

Selection decisions

Northern Ireland v Italy – FIFA World Cup 2022 – European Qualifying – Group C – Windsor Park
Craig Cathcart will captain the side in the absence of Steven Davis and Jonny Evans (Liam McBurney/PA)

Uncapped, but not fresh faced

Accrington Stanley v Bolton Wanderers – Papa Johns Trophy – Semi Final – Wham Stadium
Bolton defender Eoin Toal is one of four uncapped players in the squad (PA)

Strong start

O’Neill has always emphasised the importance of making a strong start to a qualifying campaign in order to instil belief in the squad that they might be capable of advancing, and this time is no different. A draw alongside Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and San Marino is about as good as Northern Ireland could ask for from pot five, and an opening fixture against San Marino is the ideal opportunity to get three points on the board. San Marino have never won a competitive match, and indeed have only one victory, in a friendly against Liechtenstein in 2004, since their first official match in 1990.

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