Talking points ahead of Northern Ireland’s clash with Switzerland

Northern Ireland are back on the road in their bid to reach Qatar 2022 as they prepare to face Switzerland in the first of two World Cup qualifiers away from home.

Here, the PA news agency looks at five key talking points ahead of the fixture at the Stade de Geneve.

Crunch time

Last month’s goalless draw between these two sides at Windsor Park kept Switzerland three points ahead of Northern Ireland with four games left to play in Group C. Win and Northern Ireland will go above the Swiss, with what looks like a race for second place behind Italy in their hands. Lose, and Ian Baraclough’s men would be left needing help to navigate a narrow path to the play-offs.

Injuries bite again

Northern Ireland took four points from qualifiers away to Lithuania and at home to the Swiss last month despite being without a string of key players as youngsters stepped up to make their mark. There was excitement when Baraclough named a 26-strong squad for these games that included the returning Jonny and Corry Evans Stuart Dallas, Josh Magennis and Paddy McNair. But the Evans brothers are among seven players to have subsequently withdrawn – joined by Trevor Carson, Michael Smith, Gavin Whyte, Ali McCann and Shayne Lavery – the latter two of the younger players who impressed most in September.

Landmark night for McNair

A slightly harsh yellow card in the 4-1 win over Lithuania ruled McNair out of game against Switzerland at Windsor Park, and also kept the 26-year-old waiting for his 50th cap. But the Middlesbrough man is certain to start at the Stade de Geneve, and tradition dictates he will do so as captain as he reaches half a century of appearances for his country.

Baraclough’s future to become clearer?

After a tough start to life in the job, Baraclough has overseen an uptick in Northern Ireland’s fortunes since the summer, with three wins and two draws in the last six. The 50-year-old signed an 18-month contract when he took over from Michael O’Neill last summer and would seem a strong candidate for an extension – with several players saying they want to see him stay on in the role as he brings through a younger generation of players. Though the decision will not rest solely on Northern Ireland’s qualification status for Qatar, further positive results could cement his case.

Switzerland should be stronger

Northern Ireland were not the only ones short-handed in Belfast last month with Switzerland coach Murat Yakin likewise missing several regulars in a game where they were only denied victory by Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s penalty save. Granit Xhaka remains out having suffered a serious knee injury, but the hosts will welcome back Xherdan Shaqiri and Breel Embolo, two key attacking threats who will pose a severe test of a Northern Ireland defence missing its most experienced campaigner in Jonny Evans.

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