Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland face defensive crisis as Hughes set to miss Germany clash

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is facing a defensive crisis just days before his side come up against World champions Germany at Windsor Park.

Aaron Hughes looks set to miss Thursday night's Group C qualifier through injury and he's also a major doubt for the clash in Norway on Sunday.

And although Gareth McAuley is included in the squad after recovering from a thigh injury, the centre-back is lacking match fitness and wasn't included in West Brom's squad for the 2-2 draw at home to Watford on Saturday.

The injury to Hughes is a huge blow to O'Neill with the goal hungry Germans coming to town and determined to net the one point they need to seal automatic qualification for the finals in Russia next summer.

Northern Ireland's most capped outfield player was substituted after only seven minutes of Hearts' game against Dundee on Saturday with a calf injury.

"We knew that he might struggle with his calf injury," said Hearts boss Craig Levein. "We decided to give him a chance but obviously it didn't last and forced us into the change."

The 37-year-old, who has won 108 caps, started in both of Northern Ireland's qualifier wins over San Marino and the Czech Republic last month.

McAuley missed those games after his thigh problem resurfaced in the first half of the game against Azerbaijan in June.

He returned for the Baggies in a Carabao Cup tie against Manchester City but a lack of game time leaves him lacking fitness ahead of the toughest test a defence could face on the international stage.

O'Neill does have Jonny Evans, who scored at the weekend to turn to, while his other defenders in the squad are Conor McLaughlin, Lee Hodson, Daniel Lafferty, Adam Thompson and Tom Flanagan while Corry Evans and Chris Brunt can also perform defensive duties.

Germany have never lost a World Cup qualifer on their travels.

"We're all really looking forward to the game in Belfast," said Germany coach Joachim Low. "There'll be a special atmosphere there and the Northern Irish fans will cheer on their side loudly over the 90 minutes.

"We've had a very good qualifying campaign so far, and we want to keep it that way. We're sticking to our objective of going for wins in all ten games. We want to see this qualifying campaign through to the end."

Belfast Telegraph

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