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My Northern Ireland girls are relishing difficult tests, says Wylie

By Laure James

Northern Ireland's women kick off their friendly double-header against Portugal today at the National Stadium in Oerias and expect a tough reception from the hosts, who are beginning their preparation for the Euro 2017 tournament.

An uncommon time for internationals, this will be the first time Alfie Wylie's troops have played in January, yet the experienced coach has said it's a valuable opportunity for the ladies to get together and gel even further as a unit.

"We've not been together as a group since September, and our approach these days is to take as many games as we can," Wylie said.

"Portugal needed games as they've qualified for the Women's European finals, so we were very happy to provide opposition for them.

"We arrived on Sunday and trained the following morning, which went well.

"There's a really great buzz around the camp and everyone's keen to get going."

The team will get their World Cup qualifying campaign under way in September, but are already preparing with friendlies against Francisco Neto's side and have a trip to Croatia in March confirmed.

A confident Wylie said: "We had planned on bringing someone over who we could beat by a bagful for a game, but also play a team of higher calibre, so we're delighted to have these two games to test ourselves defensively as well.

"It will be extremely tough. They're 39th in the world and we're 59th.

"While it's a bit of a coup being able to come out for two away friendlies, it's still going to be a really hard game and we want to be competitive.

"The conditions are pleasant, certainly not too humid but it will still be warm when the match gets under way."

Wylie's staff are helping to blood new talent and players such as Sarah Haddock and Chloe McGlade, who have graduated from the Under-19s, are in the squad hoping for their first senior caps.

Rachel Furness has not travelled, having quit rehab last week following surgery on her anterior cruciate ligament back in October, leaving Crystal Palace's young star Ciara Sherwood to step in.

"Rachel has just moved from Sunderland to Reading and is making good progress with her recovery, but is still far from being available to play," Wylie added. "Ciara's in great form and as with all of them is rearing to do a job.

"As we continue to improve as a squad, we'll see more competition for places and make sure we have options."

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