Northern Ireland will have the proverbial mountain to climb against Austria in Vienna tonight.
At this juncture Ian Baraclough’s team go into the UEFA Nations League encounter against the League B Group 1 leaders needing a win if they are to have any chance of avoiding relegation to the league’s third tier.
Not only are the players still recovering from the shattering defeat to Slovakia in the Euro 2020 play-off final in Belfast on Thursday, but they will be entering the fray at the Ernst Happel Stadion without four key players.
And on top of that it was confirmed last night that Norway will not be in Bucharest today to take on Romania in the fifth round of league fixtures. The Norwegian government has prevented them from travelling after team captain Omar Elabdellaoui tested positive for Covid-19 and the government insisted on a 10-day quarantine period.
According to UEFA rules Norway will have to forfeit the tie, giving Romania a 3-0 walkover win. UEFA’s disciplinary committee will have the final say, but if the result stands it means Romania will be on seven points in the group and Northern Ireland will have to defeat both Austria tonight and the Romanians in Belfast on Wednesday to avoid the drop.
Baraclough’s most pressing concern, however, is getting a positive performance and result this evening. He will be without both Niall McGinn and Jordan Thompson through injury, while George Saville has returned home for personal reasons. And a few players are also carrying knocks from the bruising encounter with the Slovakians.
Both McGinn and Saville were in the starting eleven for the Path B final, while Thompson came off the bench during the match.
Their absence means Baraclough will be forced to freshen things up, although that was always part of the game plan. And he is expected to make several changes.
It will be a huge task against the Austrians, who top the group on goal difference ahead of the Norwegians. Both have nine points from four games to date. Romania currently have four points, but will most likely be given three more, while Northern Ireland have a point from their four encounters.
Talismanic striker Marko Arnautovic did not feature for Austria when they defeated Northern Ireland 1-0 in Belfast last month - his absence was due to Covid travel restrictions in China where he now plays his club football - but he has now returned to the Austrian fold.
And also back is fellow striker Marcel Sabitzer of RB Leipzig, who was injured in October.
Both Arnautovic and Sabitzer sat out Austria’s 3-0 win away to Luxembourg in a friendly on Wednesday but they look set to start tonight.
Bayern Munich defender/midfielder David Alaba is also set to return after being rested against Luxembourg. And it’s the same for Hoffenheim midfielder Christoph Baumgartner.
A win tonight and a point against Norway at home on Wednesday (if the Norwegian government allows the team out of the country) would guarantee Franco Foda’s side promotion to League A whether Norway have to forfeit points or not. Austria defeated the Norwegians 2-1 in Oslo in September.