Talking points ahead of the big match
How to approach a two-legged tie?
Northern Ireland have never been in a play-off scenario before and their squad lacks their Swiss counterparts’ continental club experience, meaning the majority of O’Neill’s team are not familiar with the two-legged format. Being at home first may suit his side, though, as their strengths suggest they would feel more comfortable defending a lead on their travels than attempting to overturn one at home. With this in mind, O’Neill must consider if he has to encourage his team to be more attacking than normal.
Steven Davis clocks up a century
However O’Neill sets his team up, they will be led out by captain Steven Davis on his 100th international appearance. The Southampton midfielder will become just the third centurion in the nation’s history, following in the footsteps of Pat Jennings and Aaron Hughes. The 32-year-old has coveted little fanfare ahead of the landmark and has insisted the focus should be on the game itself. The best way for Northern Ireland’s talisman to mark the occasion would be to deliver a big performance on a grand stage.
Time to play your cards right
Davis is also one of eight Northern Irish players walking a tightrope in that a yellow card in Belfast will rule them out of featuring in Basel. Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Oliver Norwood, Jamie Ward, Josh Magennis, Stuart Dallas and Chris Brunt are the others and it is conceivable seven of them will start tonight. Northern Ireland simply do not have the depth to cope without some of those players in the second leg if they were to pick up another yellow card.
The Behrami issue
Switzerland’s preparations have been hampered by Udinese trying to recall Valon Behrami due to a hamstring issue. Behrami is unlikely to feature in either game but the Swiss maintain he will remain with them, despite Udinese threatening legal action if he is not sent back to Italy. It must be an unwelcome distraction for coach Vladimir Petkovic on the eve of such a crunch clash.
Petkovic also has to deal with the psychological impact of his team not yet booking their place in Russia. They won all nine qualifiers prior to meeting Portugal in the final group game last month, when a 2-0 win for the Euro 2016 champions saw them advance on goal difference. O’Neill believes missing out on qualification in such fashion, despite that healthy haul, will be mentally scarring. He has to hope his players, and the Belfast crowd, can heap on more misery.