Northern Ireland are rank outsiders in their Group F World Cup qualifier with Fabio Capello’s Russia, but with five draws from the last seven games, Michael O’Neill’s side are good value at 10/3 to take a point at Windsor Park.
Since taking over from Nigel Worthington two years ago, O’Neill has got the best out of his very limited resources, with Manchester United stopper Jonny Evans linking up well with former Old Trafford teammates Craig Cathcart in defence and veteran goalkeeper Roy Carroll to limit group leaders Portugal to a single goal in their 1-1 draw in Porto in last October.
The 2-0 loss to Israel in March – and disappointing home draws against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan – mean the Irish have no realistic chance of qualifying, with third-placed Israel eight points ahead in a three-way battle for qualification, but O’Neill’s group of youngsters is clearly improving and will be playing for their future places.
Capello’s Russia had been the form team in the group, with four wins out of four – including a 2-0 defeat of Northern Ireland in the opening game in Moscow – but a 1-0 reverse away to Portugal in June leaves them with just one win in their last four games – the 2-0 friendly defeat of Iceland in March.
Helder Postiga’s winner in Lisbon is the only strike to ruffle Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev’s net during this qualifying campaign and with Northern Ireland’s first-choice centre-forward Kyle Lafferty ruled out through injury, Capello will not fear a makeshift strike-force most likely composed of Derby’s Jamie Ward and Brentford’s Will Grigg.
However, after drawing a blank last time out and only managing to score twice in the last three qualifiers, the former England manager’s current charges could struggle to break down O’Neill’s well-organised defence.