Northern Ireland begin their World Cup qualifying campaign on Thursday night when they travel to Parma to take on Roberto Mancini’s Italy.
It will be the first full campaign under manager Ian Baraclough, who must continue Michael O’Neill’s success in having the team punch above their weight if they are to have any chance of reaching their first World Cup since 1986.
Here the PA news agency looks at five talking points ahead of the match.
Though the disappointment of November’s Euro 2020 qualifying play-off defeat to Slovakia is still fresh in the memory for Northern Ireland, the World Cup campaign offers a reset. It will be evolution, not revolution, with none of the feared retirements of senior players having materialised, but already there are fresh faces in the squad and younger players like Ali McCann and Daniel Ballard staking their claim for more regular playing time.
After eight games in charge, Ian Baraclough is still seeking his first win within 90 minutes – his only victory so far having been the penalty shoot-out triumph over Bosnia and Herzegovina in the play-off semi-final. But with the focus last year built entirely around the play-offs, a new cycle offers time for more longer-term thinking, and perhaps for the manager to bring a new identity to the side.
Northern Ireland were handed a tough draw in Group C, paired against Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Lithuania, and there is no easing in with the toughest fixture up first, away to Roberto Mancini’s side. Northern Ireland have never won in Italy, and are heavy underdogs as they get on the plane to Parma. But the match cannot be treated simply as a free hit, as the performance on Thursday night will go a long way towards setting the tone for the campaign to come.
Another international window, another record for Steven Davis. The 36-year-old has been piling up landmarks of late, and should reach another one in the next few days. Barring incident or injury the captain is a certainty to start both qualifiers – which would see him first equal and then surpass Peter Shilton’s British record of 125 caps. Come the day the midfielder finally does step away he will leave a huge void in the Northern Ireland squad, but with a new Rangers contract in his pocket, that day does not look like coming too soon.
Dion Charles has grabbed most of the attention since Baraclough named his squad last week as the 25-year-old Accrington striker earns his first senior call-up. With the likes of Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis and Gavin Whyte also in the squad, he may have to wait for his chance but equally, the absence of Conor Washington and Liam Boyce surely bump him up the rankings. No striker in the group has a better goal-scoring record this season, which makes Charles an intriguing wildcard option that Baraclough could turn to off the bench in the right circumstances.