Thursday sees Northern Ireland take on Slovakia for a place at the Euros. Tom Carnduff picks out three best bets to back.
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Northern Ireland v Slovakia
- 19:45 GMT on Sky Sports Premier League
- Match odds: Home 13/8 | Draw 9/5 | Away 19/10
It's another huge night for Northern Ireland as they look to make it back-to-back appearances at the European Championships. Victory over Slovakia will achieve just that, and Ian Baraclough will join Peter Doherty, Billy Bingham and Michael O'Neill in guiding the Green and White Army to a major tournament.
Despite their poor Nations League form, they go into this contest as favourites as they welcome a Slovakia side who were perhaps lucky to see victory on penalties over the Republic of Ireland in the semi-finals. Northern Ireland had to settle for a similar outcome in Bosnia, but they put in a strong second-half showing to force the game beyond 120 minutes.
Norn Iron's form in the Nations League has been a concern but context is needed for their most recent outings. September's contests came before the season had began and they still got a point in Romania, despite having ten men for large parts of the context, while Erling Haaland inspired Norway to victory in the other game.
In October, the focus was firmly on the game in Bosnia as that was their route to qualification. Even with the hangover of that game for two contests in quick succession, they were only beaten by a single goal at home to Austria and then in their trip to Norway.
So when we judge Baraclough's spell in charge so far, those factors have to be considered and what we saw in Bosnia was encouraging. The lack of goals remains a concern, but the team performance was there and that helped them overcome a side who were odds-on favourites before kick-off.
There is a real variety in price across the markets, including the goalscorers which we'll come onto shortly, so it is worth shopping around for the value with 9/5 available on the Oddschecker grid for a Northern Ireland victory.
On that theme of goalscorers, the 22/1 available on Paddy McNair to strike first in this contest is too good to turn down. Again, this is one where different bookmakers offer widely different prices as there is anything from 8/1 to that biggest 22/1 available. The big price is available with 888 Sport and Unibet but the value remains even if that goes down to that 12/1 mark.
The main reason behind that price is the fact that he plays as a centre-back for Middlesbrough but further forward for Northern Ireland under Baraclough. Naturally a midfielder, he has demonstrated an ability to play through the middle in any position and he did score the goal in the 5-1 defeat to Norway. That game, remarkably, he was playing off the striker.
Goals are a concern for Northern Ireland but this isn't exactly a new problem. While the structure of this team remains largely the same, they have never really settled on a preferred striking choice, although it's likely we'll see Josh Magennis in that forward role. Liam Boyce, Kyle Lafferty and Conor Washington all have claims for a spot.
It'll be interesting to see where McNair will line up for this contest, and even with a low-scoring game expected, it's worth also taking the 11/1 on an anytime goal just in case. Whichever position he finds himself in on Thursday night, the Middlesbrough man has more than demonstrated just how versatile he can be for his country.
Elsewhere, while a close contest is expected, it looks a good bet backing Northern Ireland to see more corners across the 90 minutes based on the track record of the visitors.
Slovakia have only had more corners in one of their last 12 games across all competitions, that being a 2-0 home win over Azerbaijan in November 2019. In fact, they've failed to win the 'corner battle' in their last 20, yes 20, away games. Even when they are winning games, although that hasn't been often, the opposition are seeing more corners.
Despite conceding five against Norway, Northern Ireland still saw more corners in the contest. This selection isn't so much relying on the hosts to have regularly seen more but more so that Slovakia have such a poor record in this category. On that basis, Baraclough's side can capitalise.
It's a big night for the home nations with Northern Ireland and Scotland looking to join England and Wales at next summer's tournament. The home side here, even without a full and loud Windsor Park, do have a record of performing in the big games and can consider themselves very unlucky they didn't feature at Russia in 2018.
Slovakia don't exactly boast a positive record heading into this game either and it does look like a contest where one chance will win it. McNair can be the man to get that, and even if he is in a more defensive position, it's worth remembering the six goals for his club last season.
Score prediction: Northern Ireland 1-0 Slovakia (Sky Bet odds: 5/1)
Best bet: Paddy McNair to score anytime at 11/1
- Northern Ireland are winless in three matches against Slovakia (D1 L2) since a 1-0 win in a Friendly in March 1998 with Steve Lomas scoring the winner.
- The last meeting between Slovakia and Northern Ireland was back in June 2016 in a Friendly, with the sides sharing a goalless draw.
- Victory for Northern Ireland will see them qualify for the European Championship finals for the second time and a second consecutive tournament, reaching the Round of 16 at EURO 2016.
- Slovakia are looking to reach the European Championship finals for a second time, qualifying for EURO 2016 previously.
- Northern Ireland have lost six of their last 10 matches in all competitions (W1 D3), losing their last two in a row – they last lost three consecutively in November 2017.
- Slovakia have lost their last two matches, losing to Scotland and Israel in the UEFA Nations League in October; they have not lost three in a row since October 2016.
- Since they last had more shots than an opponent in a match in June 2019 vs Belarus, Northern Ireland have attempted just 72 shots in 11 matches while facing 186 themselves – Norn Iron have only had 10 shots in one match since then (vs Bosnia in October, 13).
- Since the arrival of manager Pavel Hapal, Marek Hamsik has been directly involved in more goals than any other Slovakia player (6 – 4 goals, 2 assists).
Odds correct at 1430 GMT (11/11/20)
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