Preview: Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland - prediction, team news, lineups
:Headline: Preview: Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland - prediction, team news, lineups:
Sports Mole previews Saturday's World Cup Qualifying - Europe clash between Switzerland and Northern Ireland, including predictions, team news and possible lineups.
Following a tense goalless draw the last time the nations met, Switzerland host World Cup Qualifying Group C rivals Northern Ireland on Saturday evening.
Separated by just one place and three points in a section dominated by Italy, the clash at Stade de Geneve could prove decisive in settling who will take a probable playoff place and stay in with a shot of reaching Qatar.
Last month, Northern Ireland goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell pulled off a penalty save for the third time in a matter of weeks, as Switzerland were held by the hosts in a boisterous Belfast.
The pivotal moment came in the 33rd minute, when a penalty was awarded after Michael Smith collided with Ruben Vargas in the box, but Haris Seferovic's spot-kick was repelled by the Sheffield Wednesday stopper; denying the Swiss a precious three points in their pursuit of the group leaders.
Switzerland themselves needed to ride their luck during a 0-0 draw with Italy in the other fixture of their September double-header, and the resultant two points from two games has diminished their hopes of catching the Azzurri.
Recently-appointed boss Murat Yakin - who succeeded the successful Vladimir Petkovic in the summer - will still be aware that should his side win both of their two games in hand over the European champions, they could go joint-top of the group before the pair tackle each other in November.
With an eminently winnable fixture against Lithuania to come next week, the Euro 2020 quarter-finalists will first turn their attentions to hosting a team whom they dominated ball against and limited to just one shot just a few weeks ago.
Their recent encounters with Northern Ireland have proved particularly tight, though, as the nations have netted just one goal between them in their last three meetings: a crucial, and controversial, Ricardo Rodriguez strike from the spot, which helped the Nati qualify for Russia 2018.
Having grown into the Qatar 2022 qualification campaign, Northern Ireland now know that a win on Saturday would take them level on points with Switzerland; putting them in serious contention to claim second place in Group C.
After suffering a 2-0 defeat to Italy on the opening day, Ian Baraclough's men have since gone unbeaten in the qualifying process - beating rock-bottom Lithuania, plus drawing against Bulgaria and the Swiss.
That run of results - in addition to a friendly win over Estonia - has helped the Green and White Army move on from a previous eight-game winless streak, which was only ended by a 3-0 victory against Malta in May.
Baraclough, however, has a record of only three wins from 16 games to date, as Michael O'Neill's magical feat of turning solid performances into goals and therefore points has proven elusive for his successor so far.
To make his task of producing contenders from limited resources even more challenging, due to injuries, the former Under-21s boss has been forced to make a number of changes to the squad which will travel on to Bulgaria after visiting Switzerland - potentially a decisive blow to their hopes of qualifying.
Switzerland World Cup Qualifying - Europe form:
Switzerland form (all competitions):
Northern Ireland World Cup Qualifying - Europe form:
Northern Ireland form (all competitions):
In the build-up to their qualification double-header in the next few days, Northern Ireland have seen withdrawals from Jonny Evans - still suffering with a foot injury - Dundee United goalkeeper Trevor Carson, Michael Smith, Alistair McCann, Oxford's Gavin Whyte and Blackpool striker Shayne Lavery affect their preparations.
Therefore, Liverpool goalkeeper Liam Hughes, plus Paul Smyth, Carl Winchester and Ryan McLaughlin have been brought in as replacements for the trip to Geneva.
Experienced midfielder Paddy McNair is poised to win his 50th cap for the nation, and the Middlesbrough man should therefore start as skipper on Saturday.
Due to the absence of Smith, McCann and Lavery, there will be at least three changes to the XI that held Switzerland at Windsor Park, as Niall McGinn and Josh Magennis both hope for a return to the side.
Switzerland were missing integral stars such as Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri last month, and while the former recently suffered a serious knee injury and remains absent, the latter is back in the fold this time around.
Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Gregor Kobel - who has started all 11 of BVB's games since his summer move from Stuttgart - has also pulled out of the squad due to a knee issue and has stayed in Germany to work on rehabilitation.
Nonetheless, regular last line of defence Yann Sommer returns to claim a 69th cap of an impressive international career, with Remo Freuler and Denis Zakaria the likeliest central midfield starters in Xhaka's absence. Aiming to make amends for his penalty failure in September, Benfica's Haris Seferovic should lead the Swiss line up front.
Switzerland possible starting lineup:
Sommer; Widmer, Akanji, Elvedi, Rodriguez; Zakaria, Frei, Freuler; Zuber, Shaqiri; Seferovic
Northern Ireland possible starting lineup:
Peacock-Farrell; Brown, Cathcart, Ballard; Dallas, Saville, Davis, McNair, Lewis; Washington, Magennis
We say: Switzerland 2-0 Northern Ireland
After a barren spell across their last two matches, Switzerland can now use their various attacking options to unlock a stubborn Northern Ireland defence; stretching their advantage over the Green and White Army to an irretrievable six points - with another three surely set to follow next week.
Injuries to the visitors' threadbare squad will certainly not help their cause, as they struggle to create clear-cut chances at the best of times and are still lacking real punch up front.
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