Having already historically qualified for next year’s UEFA European Championship finals in France, Northern Ireland will be looking to cap off their sensational qualifying campaign by topping Group F when they visit fourth-placed Finland this evening.
Michael O’Neill’s leaders will walk away as group winners if they can leave Helsinki’s Olympiastadion with at least a point on Sunday to pip runners-up Romania to top spot on Sunday, who visit minnows Faroe Islands at the same time.
However the hosts have already been ruled out of contention for the Euro 2016 finals after being pegged back to a 1-1 stalemate to the hands of the Romanians in midweek, with Ovidiu Hoban netting an 91st minute equaliser for the home side to shatter the visitors’ slim hopes of beating third-place Hungary to the cherished play-off spot.
Nonetheless; the Green and White Army will have to put their celebrations on hold after Thursday’s thrilling 3-1 victory over Greece inside Belfast’s Windsor Park, their sixth qualification win that eventually sealed their automatic passage into next summer’s spectacle – the country’s first taste of a major tournament since the 1986 Mexico World Cup.
Manager O’Neill’s reign as Northern Ireland boss has been nothing short of inspirational, a run that has sealed the nation’s first-ever participation in a European Championship, although the 46-year-old insists the squad should not rest on their laurels as there is still a job to be done in Helsinki tonight.
Two-goal hero Steven Davis (Pictured) and stand-in striker Josh Magennis are expected to keep their starting places after starring in Thursday night’s memorable win, although Group F’s top goalscorer Kyle Lafferty (7) is available for selection following suspension.
O’Neill may also be able to welcome back West Brom defender Jonny Evans from injury after he missed the Greece tie with a hamstring problem, meanwhile Derby County’s Chris Baird is also in contention after serving his one-game ban which he received against Hungary back in September.
Meanwhile Hans Backe’s hosts will be hoping their top goalscorer Joel Pohjanpalo (3) will be firing on all cylinders to dampen the party mood when he partners fellow forward Riku Riski up front.
However Finland will be without the expertise of midfielder Tim Sparv through suspension after the FC Midtjylland man accumulated too many yellow cards.
The last encounter between the two nations saw Northern Ireland earn all three points back in March thanks to a brace from Norwich City striker Lafferty helped the hosts hold onto a narrow 2-1 win inside Windsor Park.
In fact; Finland have failed to defeat the Green and White Army in their previous three meetings, not since February 2003 when Sami Hyypia netted the only goal of the game.
Group Positions: Finland – 4th (11pts); Northern Ireland 1st (20pts)
Last Meeting: Northern Ireland 2-1 Finland, March 2015
Key Men: Finland – Joel Pohjanpalo, Northern Ireland – Steven Davis
Form: Finland – LLLWWD, Northern Ireland – LWDWDW
Shoot Says: Finland 1-2 Northern Ireland