Wales and Northern Ireland step up their preparations for this summer’s European Championship in France with a friendly on Thursday night (7.45pm on BBC2 Wales).
Wales sealed qualification for their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup earlier this year, with Chris Coleman’s (pictured) men finishing second in a group containing Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, Cyprus and Andorra.
It was a fantastic achievement from Coleman and his players, with Wales’ defensive record particularly notable. Indeed, while Gareth Bale was superb as the side’s talisman, primary creator and top goalscorer, a backline that was breached on only four occasions in 10 matches deserves an awful lot of credit. Coleman is likely to continue with the 3-5-2 formation that was used regularly in qualifying, although he may be tempted to experiment with a different configuration given that Thursday’s clash is a friendly rather than a competitive meeting.
Bale, Aaron Ramsey and James Collins have all been left out of the squad to face Northern Ireland and Ukraine – Wales travel to Kiev for another match on Monday – with various fitness issues. The Real Madrid man has only recently returned from a lengthy lay-off and is also expecting the birth of his second child, while the Arsenal midfielder and West Ham United defender are currently sidelined with thigh and hamstring problems respectively. Crystal Palace goalkeeper and midfielder Wayne Hennessey and Joe Ledley, Swansea City defenders Neil Taylor and Ashley Williams, Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen, West Bromwich Albion centre-back James Chester and Tottenham Hotspur left-back Ben Davies are the Premier League players who have been included in the 26-man group.
Northern Ireland reached Euro 2016 by finishing top of a group that featured Romania, Hungary, Finland, Greece and the Faroe Islands, qualifying for their first major international competition since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. While their segment did not contain one of the continent’s heavyweights, taking 21 points from their 10 fixtures was still a tremendous achievement from Michael O’Neill’s side. It will be an extremely tough ask for Northern Ireland to escape a group containing world champions Germany, Poland and Ukraine in the summer, however, but they have succeeded as underdogs before and will fear nobody in France.
O’Neill has called up uncapped duo Michael Smith and Conor Washington for Thursday’s meeting with Wales and Monday’s game against Slovenia, but experienced defender Chris Baird has failed to make the cut due to injury. West Brom midfielder Chris Brunt will also not be involved after damaging his anterior cruciate ligament, a problem that requires surgery and has already ruled the 31-year-old out of the Euros. Former Manchester United goalkeeper Roy Carroll, who is now 38 and plays his club football for Notts County, has been selected, so too West Brom pair Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans, Paddy McNair of Manchester United, Watford’s Craig Cathcart and Southampton’s Steven Davis, faces who will be familiar to Premier League audiences.
It is always difficult to predict the outcome of international friendlies, games that are often used by managers as a way to experiment with different players, line-ups and formations. Given that Euro 2016 kicks off in less than three months, though, it is likely that both Coleman and O’Neill will select their strongest possible starting XIs as they attempt to make full use of the time they have with their players.
Although the absence of Bale and Ramsey weakens Wales significantly, the hosts are still rightly considered favourites to triumph in this match. This could be a low-scoring encounter, which makes a bet on under 2.5 goals tempting, with Northern Ireland likely to find it difficult to score against one of the meanest defences in Euro 2016 qualifying.