Northern Ireland welcome Latvia to Windsor Park tonight in search of their first taste of victory in an international friendly in over seven years.
The Green and White Army; who qualified for their first-ever European Championships next summer in France only last month, may boast an impressive seven match unbeaten run, but they haven’t won a non-competitive fixture since defeating Georgia 4-1 back in March 2008.
Manager Michael O’Neill, who led Northern Ireland to the top of Group F in their respective Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, revealed he is set to experiment with his system and tactics against Latvia, but stressed the importance of continually winning games until next year’s finals.
“We do not have too many games between now and the finals next June so we have to think about our preparation and maximise what we get out of them,” said O’Neill.
“We want to keep the momentum we have built up and also use this game as an opportunity to get something out of it for the whole squad in terms of game-time.
“It’s about getting that balance right.”
Northern Ireland’s opponents Latvia, who have never qualified for a FIFA World Cup finals, failed to qualify for their first European Championships since 2004 after finishing rock bottom of Group A with no wins in ten games.
The last time these two nations came head-to-head was back in September 2007; where the minnows pulled off a shock 1-0 win in Group F of qualifying for Euro 2008, with Chris Baird’s own goal in the 56th minute proving to be the only goal of the games inside the Pedro Proenca Stadium.
However; the Green and White Army did win the only other encounter against Latvia, who only came into being as a football nation before attempting to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, with all-time leading goalscorer David Healy netting the winner in Northern Ireland’s earlier 1-0 Group F victory.
Following on from last month’s Euro 2016 qualifiying heroics against Greece and Finland; where Northern Ireland qualified for their first major tournament in 30 years, O’Neill’s side are now currently unbeaten in seven matches, the country’s best run of form since Billy Bingham’s reign of a nine-game sequence leading into the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.
Despite featuring in West Brom’s defeat to Manchester United last weekend; left-back Chris Brunt has been ruled out of tonight’s game with an ongoing groin problem, meaning Milton Keynes Dons full-back Lee Hodson is set to deputise in defence.
Meanwhile United centre-half Padd McNair has joined up with the rest of the Northern Ireland squad to train, but he will play no part against Latvia tonight as he continues his recovery from an abdominal injury.
And at the very back; Notts County goalkeeper Roy Carroll is fighting for the number one jersey with Hamilton Academical shot stopper Michael McGovern, despite the 38-year-old suffering a shock FA Cup first round exit with the Magpies to Salford City only last Friday.
On the opposing side; all eyes will be on Miedź Legnica striker Valerijs Sabala to try and spearhead Latvia’s first win since September 2014 after the 21-year-old netted three of his country’s six Euro 2016 qualifying goals.
Last Meeting: Latvia 1-0 Northern Ireland (Friendly – September 8, 2007)
Key Men: Northern Ireland – Kyle Lafferty; Latvia – Valerijs Sabala
Form: Northern Ireland – DDWDWD; Latvia – DLDLDL
Shoot Says: Northern Ireland 2-0 Latvia