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Northern Ireland U19s star to grab first senior cap as World Cup qualifiers begin

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland women’s World Cup qualifying adventure kicks off with a daunting test in Norway today - and one of the U19s' stars of the summer is set for a debut.

Linfield goalkeeper Lauren Perry, 16, won plaudits for her performances at the UEFA U19 Womens Championships and she's now set to make her first appearance for Alfie Wylie's senior side.

She'll be up against tough opposition as Norway are a European force to be feared. And Wylie’s side have other strong opponents in Group 3 with Netherlands, Republic of Ireland and Slovakia on the horizon.

Northern Ireland (60th) may be bottom seeds in the group but they are targeting third place and aim to spring a few surprises along the road to the finals in France 2019.

Euro 2017 winners Netherlands, now ranked seventh in the world, are firm favourites to top the group while 1995 winners Norway (14th), Republic of Ireland (33rd) and Slovakia (43rd) are all above Northern Ireland in the rankings.

The Norwegians, who took part in Women’s Euro 2017 and have never failed to qualify for a World Cup, will be looking to make a strong start at the city stadium in Fredrikstad.

After losing all three games in the group stages of that tournament, they will be looking to hit back, but Wylie has a strong squad to kick off the campaign including three full-time players in Rachel Furness (Crystal Palace Ladies), Simone Magill (Everton Ladies) and Laura Rafferty (Brighton and Hove Albion).

Furness, with 16 goals, is the record scorer for the Northern Ireland senior women’s team and will be looking to bolster her tally.

“We have a very experienced squad and are almost at full strength,” Wylie said. “Norway had a five-week camp prior to three weeks at the Euros so they will be very fit and well prepared. Their squad features lots of full-time players who operate in a number of different countries.

“This is obviously a difficult game but one we are really looking forward to taking part in. We have not been together since the start of April but training has gone well with a very good atmosphere and lots of enthusiasm.”

There’s a feel-good factor in the Northern Ireland camp after the European Women’s Under-19 Championship on these shores was a resounding success.

Goalkeeper Jacqueline Burns and striker Lauren Wade, who were not released to play by their university in America, are ruled out along with forwards Avilla Bergin, Kirsty McGuinness and goalkeeper Emma Higgins, but Julie Nelson could win her 96th cap.

Northern Ireland’s second game in the campaign is against the Republic at Mourneview Park on Tuesday (7.30pm, free entry).

“We have a great bunch of girls now, our best ever squad in Northern Ireland,” said Wylie.

Midfielder Kendra McMullan added: “I’m back in the Northern Ireland set-up and it’s great to be back. They are buzzing. We are going to work hard for the next two games coming up. There is no better feeling than to play for your country so I’m glad to be back. I’m going to work hard.”

The seven group winners will qualify to join France in the finals.

The four runners-up with the best records against the sides first, third and fourth in their groups will advance to the play-offs, which will consist of two rounds of two-legged knockout ties in October and November 2018 to decide Europe’s last qualifier.

The Republic of Ireland are now coached by Colin Bell, who led FFC Frankfurt to glory in the 2015 Uefa Women’s Champions League.

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