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Michael O'Neill to stick with key Northern Ireland stars for Euro 2020 play-off while Bosnia face injury headache


Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

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Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill will today name what could be his final Northern Ireland squad on the back of his best weekend as Stoke City manager.

In terms of personnel, no surprises are expected at the Bet365 Stadium where O'Neill will announce the list of players he hopes can overcome Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 26 in the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final.

Should Northern Ireland lose in Bosnia, O'Neill's reign as manager of his country will be over and the Irish FA will focus on bringing in his replacement.

If the visitors are successful, however, they will return home to face a Euro 2020 play-off final at Windsor Park against either the Republic of Ireland or Slovakia on the final day of the month.

Win that and Northern Ireland have another major tournament to relish, and the players will want O'Neill to lead them in the summer, though that would have to be agreed between Stoke, the IFA and the man himself.

Before O'Neill's squad announcement, for someone who likes to leave nothing to chance, a lot of uncertainty was in the air.

What is clear is that Stoke secured a thumping and crucial 5-1 triumph over Grant McCann's Hull City on Saturday.

Prior to kick-off O'Neill and his team were fourth bottom of the Championship and looking edgy. Mauling the Tigers rocketed them up to 17th, providing much-needed breathing space ahead of vital games against fellow strugglers Reading, Middlesbrough and Wigan.

O'Neill has insisted the Northern Ireland job has not been a distraction in his quest to keep Stoke up, revealing that Under-21 manager Ian Baraclough has been assisting him in finalising the squad for the trip to Bosnia.

While focused on Stoke, it won't have escaped O'Neill's notice that while he enjoyed a positive weekend, some of his Northern Ireland players did the same, with Kyle Lafferty scoring twice in his first Sunderland start, Conor Washington netting for the second league game in succession for Hearts and Paddy McNair on target for Middlesbrough.

Captain Steven Davis will be a key figure in Bosnia, but another Rangers ace Jordan Jones, having returned to club action on Sunday as a substitute, may be a wild card.

As always, O'Neill will build his team from the back, with Premier League stars Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart and Jamal Lewis and versatile Leeds hero Stuart Dallas crucial to his plans.

Bosnia named their squad yesterday and some top performers were missing due to injury.

Arsenal defender Sead Kolasinac, AC Milan's Rade Krunic and Lazio's Senad Lulic are all out of the March 26 clash.

On the upside for new Bosnian boss Dusan Bajevic, he does have Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic, Sheffield United's Muhamed Besic and Roma and one time Manchester City favourite Edin Dzeko available.

In the 2018 Nations League, Bosnia beat Northern Ireland home and away but Bajevic is taking nothing for granted.

He said: "We mustn't be fooled by those results. This is a completely different challenge and Northern Ireland are a good team. They can create problems for us."

Meanwhile, the Irish FA will continue to take advice from Uefa and the relevant international health authorities in relation to the coronavirus and how it may impact the play-off.

At the moment the game will go ahead as planned in front of spectators, but the IFA is aware that could change and it could take place behind closed doors.

Belfast Telegraph