Very few games are as evenly matched as Northern Ireland’s crucial Euro 2021 qualifier with Slovakia on Thursday night and there won’t be much between the two teams in what is sure to be a tense and cagey affair at Windsor Park. Both boast identical records in 2020, and the two sides also came through on penalties in last month’s play-off semi-finals.
They were arguably fortunate to progress, with Bosnia and the Republic of Ireland enjoying the better of the chances against Northern Ireland and Slovakia respectively. However, both prevailed in the lottery of the penalty shootout and now stand just 90 minutes away from booking a spot at the European Championship, although it will probably be 120 minutes in all reality.
The two have been equally poor this year, failing to win a game between them in five attempts each. They both sit bottom of their Nations League groups on one point after four games, and are almost certain to be relegated to the third tier of UEFA’s new competition.
With that in mind, it is hard to see how either of them can actually win a game in 90 minutes on Thursday.
PHIL THOMPSON: My verdict on Northern Ireland’s chances against Slovakia
If last month’s play-off semi-finals were anything to go by, we are not going to see a lot of goals on Thursday night. The eight play-offs were generally edgy and tense right across the board and there was a real lack of goals, especially in the second and third tiers. Slovakia’s scoreless draw with the Republic of Ireland was notable only for the lack of goalscoring opportunities, with the Slovaks only managing two shots on target in 120 minutes.
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, may have managed to find the back of the net in their 1-1 draw with Bosnia, but they too failed to create an abundance of chances in another tense draw. Both have struggled for goals in the Nations League too, with Northern Ireland only mustering two goals in four games and Slovakia only faring slightly better with four. If any game had 0-0 written all over it, it is this one.
Both Northern Ireland and Slovakia find themselves in the play-off final courtesy of a penalty shootout victory, and one of them could well owe their place at next summer’s Euros to another penalty shootout success. The semi-finals last month saw three penalty shootouts take place at the same time as teams were clearly too afraid of losing to really take the games by the scruff of the neck.
It won’t be any different on Thursday. If anything, they will be even more cautious and reserved. Neither Northern Ireland nor Slovakia boast any real quality in the final third and there is a very real chance that neither will be able to claim victory in 120 minutes. If a winner does come, it is likely to come from a set-piece or defensive mistake, but we’re banking on this one going the distance again.
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Northern Ireland v Slovakia
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