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Thursday 22 Feb 2024
Preview | Northern Ireland in ‘good place’ ahead of play-off match

Northern Ireland will be going all out to get the desired result when they take on Montenegro tomorrow (23 February) in the first leg of a UEFA Women’s Nations League play-off.

That’s the promise of Northern Ireland boss Tanya Oxtoby ahead of the game at the Gradski Stadion in Podgorica (1pm kick-off UK time).

Oxtoby said her squad are “in a good place” as they look forward to competing against Montenegro tomorrow and once again in the return leg at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park on Tuesday (27 February), a game which has a 7pm start.

She said she was excited to see her players put into practice what they have been working on during some intense training sessions this week.

“If we get the performance right then hopefully the result will take care of itself,” the manager insisted.

Team captain Marissa Callaghan said the games against Montenegro were “massive” for the senior women’s team. “These are two finals,” she pointed out, adding that Montenegro will be tough opponents.

She further said the players had been working really hard on how they will thwart the opposition and how they will play to their own strengths.

The overall winner of the two-leg play-off will be in League B in the European Qualifiers phase of the Women’s Nations League this year, while the losing team will be in League C.

Oxtoby’s squad – who finished third in Group B1 of the inaugural edition of the competition – will be aiming to retain their spot in League B.

Two wins over Albania and a draw at home to Hungary left them with seven points while Republic of Ireland topped the group with a 100% record and the Hungarians finished in second place. Albania propped up the table with a solitary point.

Montenegro finished as runners-up to Azerbaijan in Group C3 with 12 points from six games. They defeated both Cyprus and Faroe Islands home and away, although they lost home and away to Azerbaijan.

Oxtoby has a 23-strong panel to choose from ahead of the play-off matches.

Birmingham City Women defender Rebecca Holloway, who was named in the original squad, is injured and is currently undergoing treatment at her club. She has been replaced by Cliftonville Ladies defender/midfielder Toni-Leigh Finnegan.

Like Northern Ireland, the Montenegro squad is a mix of youth and experience.

In their last outing, a 2-0 home win against Cyprus in the Nations League in December, their goals were scored by midfielder Sladjana Bulatovic (29) and striker Armisa Kuc (31), who both play their club football with Fomget in Turkey.

However, younger players like striker Jelena Vujadinovic, who plays for Medyk Konin in Poland, was on target twice when Montenegro defeated Faroe Islands 9-0 at home the same month.

Bulatovic, who usually captains the team, has 17 international goals under her belt, while Kuc has netted 21 times for her country.

Their rising star is 21-year-old Jelena Karlicic, a midfielder who plays her club football with Bordeaux in France.

The most experienced keeper in the Montenegro squad is Anastasija Krstovic (20), who plays for St Mihaly in Hungary.

Their back line features a couple of experienced operators in Tatjana Djurkovic (27), who plays for Asteras Tripolis in Greece, and Helena Bozic (27), a defender with Russian side Dynamo Moscow.

However, most of the Montenegrins play for clubs in Serbia or Montenegro, including the youngest member of their panel, 16-year-old striker Masa Tomasevic, who is on the books of Buducnost in her homeland.