Kenny Sheils’ Northern Ireland side has taken the lessons they learnt in their 6-0 defeat to the Lionesses in February’s friendly and now they have their attention firmly on their double date with Ukraine, the winner over the two legs earning a right to compete in Euro 2022 which is being held in England.
Northern Ireland has climbed the FIFA rankings to 49th position, just above Jamaica. While their opponents occupy the 24th spot, sandwiched between Finland and Russia.
Many wouldn’t have given Northern Ireland any hope of even reaching this point, it’s a huge achievement in itself, so being cast as underdogs isn’t something that worries Sheils who recognises that this is a bit of a “David and Goliath” situation. The team will have seen how the men’s side have consistently shown that rankings count for nothing as they have picked up huge results against the likes of England and Spain.
Their preparation has been far from ideal with only the one “competitive” warm-up game and the news that former Glasgow City forward, Lauren Wade and Abbie Magee have been ruled out through injury. However, they are boosted by the return of Bristol City’s Laura Rafferty, Sion Swifts’ Kirsty McGuinness and Glentoran’s Emma McMaster.
Sheils’ said “Myself and my backroom team will make sure they are ready and prepared to win games. The players are enthusiastic and they have the belief and the ability to succeed. They will be ready to give everything they have.”
Ukraine are managed by former international midfielder, Nataliya Zinchenko. The 41-year-old has been in charge of the side since 2018. If Sheils’ side is to progress then it is vital that they can keep Daryna Apanaschenko quiet. The midfielder from Zhytlobud-1 Kharkiv is the country’s all-time top-scorer with thirty-six goals in sixty matches.
In the build-up to the game, Zinchenko said, “I’m not very worried about the sport form of the Northern Irish. In my opinion, the main thing is for my wards to play their football – combination, fast, using the flanks. If our girls show all their skills, you can safely count on a positive result.”
I have personally fallen for this Northern Ireland side and while my head cannot see a way past Ukraine, my heart knows that the Green Army have every chance of progression with the goalscoring ability of Kirsty McGuinness, Simone Magill and Rachel Furness. Sheils will need that trio to be ruthless and to take their chances when they are presented.
Magill is in a rich vein of form, scoring three goals in her last four games for Everton and she has said, “If there’s ever a time in my career to be firing them in this is it.”
She added, “We were written off at the start of the campaign and we’ve proved everyone wrong. The progress we’ve made and the journey we’ve been on with these girls is fantastic and we’re so, so close to qualifying for a major tournament. It would mean everything – for all the hard work that goes in and all the sacrifices that have been made to get us to where we are now. We’ve already made history by getting to this point but we know we haven’t achieved anything yet.”
The first of the two play-off games is being played at the Kolos Stadium, home of Ukraine Premier League club FC Kolos Kovalivka, appx 60 miles from Kyiv. Kick-off time on 9 April is 17:00 GMT. The second leg is at Seaview in Belfast on April 13th and the kicks off at 19:45. Both matches are available to watch live via the BBC Player, the BBC Sport NI website and via the red button. The second leg will also be available live on BBC NI television.