Northern Ireland’s Under-21s have not had it easy in their U21 Euro 2021 qualifying campaign to date.
Although they have competed well in every game they have found points and goals hard to come by in Qualifying Group 8.
And it’s not going to get any easier as they embark on the final two games of this campaign: home and away to Ukraine. They play the Ukrainians behind closed doors at Ballymena Showgrounds this evening (6.00 start).
Denmark (22 points) are runaway leaders in the group and only Romania (16 points), currently in second place, can catch them. However, the Danes only need a draw against Finland at home today to qualify for the finals next year.
Ukraine, who defeated Romania 1-0 at home last Thursday, are third in the group on 10 points, just ahead of Finland on goal difference.
Northern Ireland, with six points, are fifth in the standings, while Malta are propping everyone else up after securing a single point (away to Northern Ireland, 0-0).
U21s caretaker boss Andy Crosby was clearly disappointed his side lost to Finland in Ballymena last Thursday.
Northern Ireland were the better team in the first half and were leading 2-1 on the hour mark thanks to a fine double from striker Paul O’Neill, but the Finns were stronger and more clinical in the last 30 minutes of the match and ran out 3-2 winners.
Regular strikers David Parkhouse (Hartlepool United) and Shayne Lavery (Linfield) missed the game against Finland through injury and they will be missing again today.
Midfield playmaker Ethan Galbraith (Manchester United) was also unavailable for that match due to injury and it’s touch and go if he will play today. He trained yesterday with the rest of the squad, however he is nursing a sore foot.
Midfielder JJ McKiernan (Watford) made a good impression against the Finns on his U21s debut, and may get another run-out.
However, Crosby is likely to have a broad spine of more experienced U21 players, such as Eoin Toal and Jake Dunwoody (both Derry City), Ciaron Brown (Livingston), Bobby Burns, Caolan Marron and Paul O’Neill (all Glentoran) and Caolan Boyd-Munce (Birmingham City), as they face a strong Ukrainian side.
In their eight U21 Euro 2021 qualifiers to date the boys in green and white have registered one victory, three draws and suffered four defeats, home and away to Denmark U21s, home against Finland and away against Romania U21s.
Northern Ireland’s final game in the qualifying campaign will see them take on the Ukrainians in Kovalivka on 17 November.
Today’s match will be streamed live on the BBC Sport website (NI section) from six o’clock.