Boss sure girls set for a near-empty ground after high of 30k at Wembley
Geographically, the Petar Milosevski Training Centre in Skopje, North Macedonia’s national football centre, is around 1,500 miles away from Wembley.
In terms of size, the arenas are a world apart — as is the hype surrounding the North Macedonia v Northern Ireland Women’s World Cup 2023 qualifier that will take place at lunchtime today.
The talk before each of the first two double-headers in this World Cup campaign has centred around the venues, firstly Northern Ireland’s first women’s international at Windsor Park in almost a decade followed by facing England at Wembley in the first competitive women’s game to be staged there since its rebuild.
Now, as the Northern Ireland team prepares to play in a stadium where most of the 2,500 seats will remain empty, the backdrop will be more akin to Mill Meadow in Castledawson, where Shiels has been preparing his team for a crunch double-header against the Macedonians, where six points are vital if they are to keep the pressure on last month’s opponents England and Austria in Group D.
“That last two Saturday mornings we played a couple of practice games for the effect of not having an atmosphere like we have for the recent games,” said Shiels, acknowledging the comedown from playing in front of 30,000 at Wembley.
“We’ve already done the rehearsal where we played without any crowd to prepare for this.
“They won’t have the fan base that we have and you have to think how you prepare for that, so we have replicated that fixture the last two Saturdays, which will help.”
Points won’t be enough to move Northern Ireland ahead of Austria in the group.
Unlike the Euro 2022 campaign when head-to-head record against Wales saw the girls in green qualify for the play-offs, Fifa’s first separation criteria is goal difference.
After smashing eight past Latvia, putting six past North Macedonia and scoring five against Luxembourg, Austria have a +18 goal difference, 14 better than Northern Ireland.
Shiels insists that the focus must only be on winning.
“Goal difference doesn’t come into play yet, but it will do,” he said. “There is a change compared to the last campaign where the first priority is goal difference.
“If we start to think that we have to beat a team 6-0, you can’t do that. That’s not the way it works — because one team beat them 6-0, we have to beat them 6-0 or whatever.
“You shouldn’t work like that. The best way to do it is to win every game and then take a look at it.”
The message is the same from the players. Midfielder Nadene Caldwell has played through enough campaigns where wins were hard to come by and picking up three points comes first, with goals as a welcome bonus.
“We are solely focused on the game and opportunities will arise in the game if we play the way we know we can,” said Caldwell.
“That isn’t even in our mind — three points and a positive performance is what we are focused on.”