Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill faces late change of plan after Kyle Lafferty’s injury in Italy on Sunday
Manager has yet to experience a victory on the international stage and the arrival of a Russia side with four wins from five Group F outings is hardly the ideal opportunity to end that sequence
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill and captain Steven Davis face the media before the Russia game. Photograph: William Cherry/Inpho
The striker scored for new club Palermo on Sunday but also picked up a knock and, due to the short turnaround time, has not been able to join his international team-mates in Belfast.
Former Rangers man Lafferty is an automatic pick when fit and available, with O’Neill valuing his physicality and ability to lead the line on his own.
Those attributes would have been a central part of O’Neill’s strategy against a hotly-fancied Russian side managed by Fabio Capello, but he must now decide how best to cover the 25-year-old’s absence. Brentford’s Will Grigg is the closest to a like-for-like replacement but has just two caps and has yet to start a competitive fixture, while Aberdeen’s Josh Magennis is another option having been added to the squad yesterday.
More likely, though, is a different brand of centre forward – with the Huddersfield’s Martin Paterson, Derby’s Jamie Ward and Billy McKay of Inverness the other options available.
O’Neill may yet opt for a combination of two, but he admits that with Lafferty joining Chris Brunt (suspended) and Chris Baird (unattached) in missing the fixture, he has been left with gaps to fill. “They are big players for us and in terms of our starting line up but it gives opportunities to players who have been patient.
O’Neill has yet to experience a victory on the international stage, having drawn five and lost four of his nine games at the helm. The arrival of a Russia side with four wins from five Group F outings is hardly the ideal opportunity to end that sequence, but O’Neill insists that is the target.
Manchester United defender Jonny Evans is expected to start despite remaining on the bench during the Community Shield having suffered a pre-season niggle.