Any way back for Kyle Lafferty? Five talking points ahead of Northern Ireland double-header
Northern Ireland return to Nations League action in Vienna on Friday when they face Austria in the first of two crunch away games in their group.
Here's a look at five of the key talking points ahead of the game:
1. Kyle Lafferty's absence
Kyle Lafferty delivered a shock on Sunday when he called Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill to say he would not be meeting up with the rest of the squad on Monday. The cause of the withdrawal is unclear but the wording of O'Neill's statement suggests all is far from well behind the scenes. The manager has said he will "address the situation" after this week's games are out of the way, but the absence of the Rangers striker will be hard to ignore with Northern Ireland - goalless in their last four away games - in need of results. Whether or not there is any way back for the 31-year-old remains to be seen.
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2. Points to prove
Northern Ireland's attacking display in their Nations League opener earned plenty of plaudits - but no points as O'Neill's side conspired to lose 2-1 to Bosnia and Herzegovina in a game they dominated. That has put the pressure on for the away double-header against Austria and Bosnia this week as further setbacks could see them face relegation in the Nations League format, dealing a blow to their Euro 2020 qualification hopes. Austria also suffered an opening loss to Bosnia, leaving both teams under early pressure going into Friday's match in Vienna.
3. Style, substance or both?
Northern Ireland's domination against Bosnia a month ago came as they imposed themselves on the game from the off with an attacking style. No longer content to pick teams off on counter-attacks or from set-pieces, O'Neill's team were firmly on the front foot from the start, only to be undone by clumsy mistakes at the back on Bosnia's rare forays forward. O'Neill's players have spoken about how much they enjoyed the tactics, but will they be seen this weekend given the fact they are away from home and in need of results?
5. Austria without Alaba
Austria will start the match without star man David Alaba after he suffered a hamstring injury in Bayern Munich's shock 3-0 home loss to Borussia Monchengladbach on Saturday. The 26-year-old, capable of playing in a number of positions but most often seen at left-wingback of late, is usually the focal point for the national team and his absence will be keenly felt. Captain Julian Baumgartlinger and midfielder Florian Grillitsch are also injury doubts.
5. Who starts in goal?
Bailey Peacock-Farrell's competitive debut did not go to plan against Bosnia last month, with the visitors' second goal standing out as a bit of a calamity - even if Craig Cathcart sought to take the blame. When O'Neill instead used Trevor Carson and Michael McGovern in the following friendly against Israel he said it had nothing to do with performance but was instead to give them playing time. Now they have a competitive fixture again, O'Neill has a decision to make on whether to stick with the 21-year-old Peacock-Farrell, who is hoping to establish himself as Northern Ireland's long-term goalkeeper.
Belfast Telegraph Digital