Belfast Telegraph

First trip to Belarus will present tough challenge

 

In charge: Belarus manager Igor Kriushenko will eye a win
In charge: Belarus manager Igor Kriushenko will eye a win

By Paul Ferguson

Nations League play-off hopefuls Belarus are rooted to the bottom of Group C after three opening defeats.

The former Soviet state were hammered 4-0 in their opening game by the Netherlands, lost 2-1 in Belfast to Northern Ireland and last Saturday in Borisov the Germans secured a 2-0 victory.

However, Igor Kriushenko's side are just two games away from the Euro 2020 finals.

The Belarusians were undefeated as they won their Nations League group, after coming through a division that included Luxembourg, Moldova and San Marino, and gained promotion to the third tier of the competition.

Next March they will play in the Tier Four semi-finals, along with Georgia, North Macedonia and Kosovo, with the winners having the chance to compete for the right to go to the Euro finals.

Northern Ireland's 2-1 victory over Belarus in March was only the second time the two countries have met - with both games at Windsor Park.

Michael O'Neill's men, in their second Euro 2020 qualifier, needed a late strike from substitute Josh Magennis to win after Ihar Stasevich had cancelled out Jonny Evans' opener.

Three years ago, in Northern Ireland's farewell game before heading to the Euro 2016 finals in France, Belarus were asked along to the party and were well beaten 3-0 in front of a capacity crowd at Windsor Park.

Kyle Lafferty opened the scoring with his 17th international goal on his 50th appearance before Conor Washington added a second and substitute Will Grigg opened his account.

This will be the first time Northern Ireland have been visitors to the country that has never qualified for a major finals.

Belarus, as a footballing nation, have only been in existence since 1992 when they gained independence following the dissolution of the old Soviet Union.

They became affiliated to Fifa in that year but had to wait 12 months to be recognised by Uefa.

Belarus' most-capped player is Alyaksandr Kulchy, who appeared on 102 occasions between 1996 and 2012. Alexander Hleb, the former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder and perhaps Belarus' most famous footballer ever, moved up to joint second on their appearance record after playing in Belfast. Maksim Romaschenko is the country's all-time leading scorer having found the net 20 times in his 64 caps.

The closest Belarus have come to reaching a major finals came in the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup. They finished third in a group that included Poland, Ukraine, Norway and Wales.

The Belarusians won four of five games at home, and had they beaten Wales in Cardiff in their final match would have secured a play-off. Yet Mark Hughes' side recorded their only victory and Belarus ended up third, behind Poland and Ukraine.

The most famous win for the White Wings arrived in 2010, in the first match of the Euro 2012 qualifiers when they beat France 1-0 in Paris at the Stade de France. Siarhei Kislyak, who is set to play tonight, scored the winning goal.

Until the start of this Euro campaign, Belarus' form had been excellent - they enjoyed a six-game unbeaten run as they romped to the top of their Nations League. They will be an extremely physical side and much more of a robust challenge than Estonia last Saturday night.

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