|Venue: San Marino Stadium, Serravalle Date: Thursday, 23 March Kick-off: 19:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Live text commentary and match report on the BBC Sport website; live commentary on BBC Sounds, BBC Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle; Match highlights on BBC Two NI at 23:15 GMT and live and on demand on BBC iPlayer|
Tried and tested or an element of the unknown? Experience or youth? Solidity or adventure?
Just over three months on from the fanfare that greeted his return, Michael O’Neill’s second spell as Northern Ireland manager will begin in earnest against San Marino on Thursday night.
Consistency of selection was a hallmark of the former Stoke City boss’s successful first international tenure, with few of his line-ups delivering too many surprises – apart, of course, from the host of changes he made for that famous Euro 2016 win over Ukraine.
However, with so many experienced regulars missing through injury and O’Neill having not picked an international team since November 2019, there is significant intrigue over how the away teamsheet will look in Serravalle.
With that in mind, former NI internationals Jim Magilton and Stephen Craigan take a look at some of the key decisions O’Neill has had to make.
Defensive shape in Evans’ absence
In terms of what formation NI will set up in against San Marino, Magilton and Craigan believe O’Neill will go with three at the back in what will most likely be a 3-5-2.
With experienced defender Jonny Evans forced to withdraw through injury on Monday, a back three of Craig Cathcart – who will captain the side – Dan Ballard and Ciaron Brown would be the choice for both ex-players.
“Michael has spoken about not having many wide players in the squad [with Conor McMenamin having now pulled out injured]which makes me think it will be a make-up of 3-5-2,” former Motherwell centre-half Craigan said.
“I think Michael would want to be more solid and have a back three anyway, to narrow down the room for error. Having the presence of Jonny would have been huge but Michael will know he can’t go on forever and Ballard is probably next in line to be the number one centre-half.”
O’Neill said when announcing his squad that he had received positive feedback from contacts at Newcastle United about Jamal Lewis’ conditioning, and both Craigan and Magilton feel he should start ahead of Shane Ferguson at left wing-back despite his lack of games.
Looking at the right hand side, both were enthusiastic about the form of Sunderland’s Trai Hume and Conor Bradley, the teenager on loan at Bolton Wanderers from Liverpool. Magilton worked with them in the NI youth system and would be happy with either starting, though Craigan believes Bradley’s attacking nature could earn him the nod against San Marino.
“Trai might be one for the Finland game when we are looking for a bit more solidity,” he said.
“The San Marino match might favour Conor a little bit more. You can take the reins off him and let him go and find himself in an area of the pitch to get goals, because he has done that for Bolton this season. Michael will be keen to get as many forward-thinking players into his side as possible.”
Who will replace Davis as midfield lynchpin?
Northern Ireland have played very few competitive games without talismanic captain Steven Davis over the last 18 years, and who takes his place as the deep-lying midfield playmaker could be one of O’Neill’s biggest conundrums.
It’s a challenge made all the harder by Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans and Ali McCann also missing through injury but Magilton believes Man City teenager Shea Charles has all the tools to assume the role.
“I would have no problem whatsoever in playing Shea as the sitter,” said Magilton, who himself played 52 times in Northern Ireland’s midfield.
“He is another young kid who has come through the ranks, I know him very well. He has shown great composure and a reassurance during the limited time he has played. People are excited about Shea because he can provide that link between our back three and our attack.
“Shea always plays on the half-turn, is always looking to play forward, is always aware of situations and has great awareness. He puts himself in a position to receive the ball and has a pass in his head before the ball arrives at his feet.”
While Craigan sees Charles as the long-term replacement for Davis, he feels his inexperience will count against him for now, and instead feels Jordan Thompson could be a better option – if he can curb his natural attacking instincts.
Both men feel Paddy McNair’s running power make him a must-have in the midfield three, while both wondered if the eye for goal of uncapped Cameron McGeehan, currently playing for Belgian side Oostende, might force him into the reckoning.
“The one thing we haven’t had is a goalscoring midfield player,” Magilton added.
“Cameron is another lad I had in the Under-21s and he always carried a goal threat, having that one great season at Barnsley when he scored lots of goals. Michael will be trying to find someone to carry a threat from midfield and Cameron’s forward thinking could be an option.”
What to do about scoring more goals?
While O’Neill was more likely to play two wide men off a lone striker during his first spell in charge, the shape suggested by Magilton and Craigan would include a strike partnership.
Scoring goals has long been a problem for Northern Ireland – “since forever” Craigan joked – but who do the duo feel are best equipped to help find the net?
“He has trusted Conor Washington and Josh Magennis,” Magilton said. “He has played with them and that might be his go-to in the first game, if Conor is fit, because he may feel like he wants real experience.”
Craigan, meanwhile, believes – especially against an opposition as lowly-ranked as San Marino – that it is time to give Dion Charles, scorer of 18 goals for Bolton this season, more of a run in the starting XI.
“I would imagine he will want at least one experienced player, should it be Washington or Magennis,” he remarked.
“Dion Charles is the one that a lot of fans have been shouting for and I can understand why because he has scored the most goals this season. He is a bit raw but he has something that gets you out of your seat – he is that risk player that can produce something out of nothing.
“I would like to think he might go with Dion plus Josh or Conor. If you can’t put one or two risk players in against San Marino then when can you?”