Belfast Telegraph

Fitness boosts for NI and RoI ahead of World Cup play-off draw

By Robert Jones

International bosses Michael O'Neill and Martin O'Neill enjoyed some encouraging news on the injury front ahead of the World Cup play-offs next month.

The Republic of Ireland appeared to be sweating on the fitness of Londonderry man Shane Duffy who was forced off while playing for Brighton on Sunday.

Duffy, who has been a mainstay of the Republic of Ireland side's World Cup qualifying campaign alongside Ciaran Clark in the heart of central defence, was replaced by Uwe Hunemeier in the 73rd minute due to what looked to be a groin problem.

Speaking after the game though, Duffy was hopeful that he would be able to return to action in time for the visit to West Ham in just five days time.

"I felt my groin, and it was probably just too sore at the time to continue," he said.

"I didn't want to make the team play any worse by staying on and not playing to my full potential. It wasn't [the clash with Jordan Pickford], I was running back and just felt a bit tight. Hopefully, touch wood, it'll calm down and I'll try my best to be available for Friday."

While Republic boss Martin O'Neill was encouraged by Duffy's upbeat assessment of his injury, Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill will be thrilled to see striker Jamie Ward return to action.

Ward has not played a competitive game for Nottingham Forest this season due to injury, but he was a 60th-minute substitute in Sunday's East Midlands derby at Pride Park.

Ward's former club Derby County won the game 2-0 but the 31-year-old's return is positive news for O'Neill as he prepares to finalise this squad for the play-offs.

The striker suffered a calf injury in a pre-season friendly against Burnley but now he's fighting fit again, just in time for the shot at a place in next summer's World Cup in Russia.

The play-off draw is on Tuesday and Northern Ireland keeper Alan Mannus said: "We can get Switzerland or Italy, the two biggest teams, but we tend to do quite well against the biggest teams. Denmark and Croatia wouldn't be considered quite as big but it doesn't matter who we want because we can't affect it so we'll just wait and see."

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