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The Shorty: Northern Ireland To Win
It can be difficult for teams who don’t qualify for major tournaments to generate any enthusiasm for summer friendlies in the best of circumstances. It is almost impossible to do so when a friendly is cancelled at the last moment and Malta are drafted in as last-second replacements.
However, this is a somewhat important game for Northern Ireland, who are in desperate need of a result. It is a case of any win will do at the moment for Northern Ireland, who have not won a game outright since Ian Baraclough’s appointment last June.
The Green and White Army have gone 13 games without a win in normal time, in a run stretching back to October 2019. Their poor form has been somewhat overlooked due to their penalty shootout victory over Bosnia in the Euro 2020 play-offs, but they have now lost six and drawn two since that win in Sarajevo.
Sunday 17:00 – Malta v Northern Ireland
Sky Sports Premier League
Sunday’s clash with Malta represents an ideal opportunity to break that winless streak. The minnows are currently ranked 175th in the FIFA World Rankings and have recorded just eight competitive wins in their entire history.
The Maltese will take heart from an encouraging 2-2 draw in Slovakia in a World Cup qualifier in March, but Northern Ireland really should have too much for them.
Value Play: Under 2.5 Goals
Like their neighbours in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland’s biggest problem over the past 18 months has been putting the ball in the back of the net.
They have failed to score more than once in a game in their last 13 matches, scoring just eight times in that 13-game spell. They have scored more than twice on just one occasion in their last 25 games – a bizarre friendly against the Czech Republic in October 2019 when they scored three times inside the opening 40 minutes.
They have struggled to break down plenty of lower-ranked sides in that spell, scoring just eight goals in six games against Belarus, Luxembourg, Estonia, and Bulgaria. Malta have also improved defensively in recent years, keeping two clean sheets in last year’s Nation League – albeit against sides of a similar stature.
However, they were not ripped apart by Croatia, Russia, or Slovakia in March’s World Cup qualifiers and are not the whipping boys that they once were.
Josh Magennis has enjoyed a stellar season with Hull City; his 18 goals helping the Tigers earn an immediate return to life in the Championship. The forward has a knack for scoring crucial goals and proved as much during the run-in as he helped Hull stave off the challenge of their promotion rivals.
For Northern Ireland, he has proved equally invaluable, scoring crucial goals in qualifiers over the last few years. His goals during Northern Ireland’s qualifying campaign for Euro 2020 kept the Green and White Army in contention for a place at this summer’s championships and he remains their most likely source of goals.
At the other end, Northern Ireland will hope that their defence can rediscover the solidity that propelled them to Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup play-offs.
Baraclough’s side recorded their first clean sheet in 12 games when they drew with Bulgaria in their most recent World Cup qualifier and will hope to build on those defensive foundations when they take on Malta on Sunday night.
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