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Selection dilemma, but first a waiting game for Michael O'Neill over Gareth McAuley's injury

By Steven Beacom

Published 30/09/2015

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

The Northern Ireland management team and scouting staff have been working overtime lately.

Michael O'Neill is leaving nothing to chance ahead of next week's clash with Greece knowing the big juicy carrot of the European Championship finals is dangling at the end of it.

Eight games into the campaign, bar a few injuries here and there, O'Neill's selection issues have been relatively straightforward.

Ahead of the Windsor showdown with bottom of the table Greece, however, the Northern Ireland boss will be missing at least three of his regular starters with Kyle Lafferty, Chris Baird and Conor McLaughlin suspended.

Aware of that since the draw with Hungary, he is more anxious over the fitness of defender Gareth McAuley who has a calf problem, though is confident Niall McGinn and Aaron Hughes, likely to be McLaughlin's replacement, will overcome niggly injuries to play.

Manchester United's Paddy McNair, recently recovered from injury himself, is lined up to take over from Baird in midfield, but the big call will be in attack, finding Lafferty's replacement.

In the mix are Kilmarnock's Josh Magennis, Ross County's Liam Boyce and Dundee United's Billy McKay, all in scoring form for their clubs, plus Wigan's Will Grigg while Nottingham Forest's Jamie Ward or even McGinn could come into contention up front should O'Neill opt for two strikers rather than his usual one.

There is also a dilemma in goal between Fermanagh pair Roy Carroll and Michael McGovern. The latter was at fault for Hungary's goal in this month's 1-1 draw and O'Neill must decide whether to stick with McGovern or bring back the more experienced Carroll.

O'Neill, his assistant Jimmy Nicholl and former Northern Ireland midfielder Damien Johnson have all scouted the potential attacking options.

The manager's verdict: "We have been watching everyone. The boys in Scotland are all playing very well and scoring which is a good thing.

"I don't think it is necessarily a case of who is going to replace Kyle.

"There are other options. We could play with two up front or change the system, but I won't tinker for the sake of it.

"I always look at where the players play for their clubs. For example, Billy McKay and Josh Magennis are both playing as a central striker. So asking them to play as a front two might be unfair on them.

"Liam Boyce is predominantly playing in a front two with Ross County.

"He drops back a bit, so you have to take everything into consideration.

"What I would add is that when players have come in and been asked to step up in this campaign they have done that, Stuart Dallas for example."

On McAuley, O'Neill said: "It would be a huge blow for us if he wasn't available for the Greece game but West Brom will be doing everything possible for him to be fit for Saturday, and we will be doing everything possible to have Gareth available for the Greece game or the Finland game.

"I hope all the players come through the weekend. This can be the most challenging time as an international manager."

Belfast Telegraph

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