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Hosts can keep Baltic guests at bay

Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 7.45pm Thursday
Euro 2020 qualifying Group C


Northern Ireland have little room for error in the Euro 2020 qualification race but they can make a solid start by beating Estonia at Windsor Park.

Michael O'Neill's side upset the odds by reaching the last 16 at Euro 2016, but their hopes of doing something similar next summer were dented when they were drawn in a tough qualifying section alongside Germany, Holland, Belarus and Estonia.

Finishing in the top two is going to take a huge effort and O'Neill's men simply cannot afford to drop points in their fixtures against Estonia and Belarus.

The home match against Estonia looks the easiest of those eight games and it has been made more straightforward by the absence of opposition captain Ragnar Klavan, who suffered an Achilles injury while playing for Cagliari last December.

In the inaugural Nations League, Estonia finished bottom of League D Group 2 below Finland, Hungary and Greece.

The Baltic outfit finished off the campaign with a surprise 1-0 success over Greece in Athens last November, although it was a backs-to-the-wall effort with their opponents dominating the shot count 25 to five.

Estonia will have to do plenty more defending against Northern Ireland, who are hopeful of replicating the energy and purpose of their performances on the road to Euro 2016.

O'Neill's side made full use of the home games during that campaign, collecting 11 points from a possible 15.

It was a real team effort although centre-forward Kyle Lafferty was key, scoring seven of the 16 goals, and he looks like leading the line once again despite being restricted to cameo roles for Rangers this year.

O'Neill will have to take a chance of the match fitness of several other key players, including Lafferty's teammate Steven Davis, who is not a first-team regular for the Gers.

But concerns over match fitness are nothing new to O'Neill, who always seems to get a decent shift out of his players.

Organisation and workrate are crucial elements for Northern Ireland, who lack the star quality of the top international teams, but those qualities should be enough to overcome a poor opposition which generally struggles on the road.

Prior to the shock win in Greece, Estonia had lost four consecutive away games without scoring.

They look by far the weakest of the five teams in the group and they are unlikely to make a goalscoring impact in Belfast.

Recommendation
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