Kazakhstan host Northern Ireland on Sunday, where a victory will ensure they continue to apply pressure to the team above them in Group H. On the other hand, this game is essentially make or break for Northern Ireland as anything over than three points essentially ends their European Championship dream.
In the previous qualifier games, Kazakhstan have proven to be a far more difficult side to play against than originally anticipated. Despite losing 2-1 in their first game against Slovenia, The Hawks bounced back with a shocking 3-2 victory over Denmark, where they came back from a two goal deficit to claim all three points. Magomed Adiev used that enormous victory to motivate his side and Kazakhstan won their next two games versus San Marino and this weekend’s opponents Northern Ireland.
Kazakhstan work as a unit and although they don’t have many star players, each individual plays an important role for the team. They are extremely hard to break down and the two losses they have received has been by one goal which indicates that each game is always decided by minute details. This weekend, Adiev will be happy for his side to be patient, soak up the pressure and strike conservatively when an opportunity presents itself.
Michael O’Neill and his side recognise this game as a must win and they will have no choice but to take the game to their stubborn opposition. Other than the opener versus San Marino and Thursday’s game against Slovenia, Northern Ireland have struggled in front of goal. Bolton Wanderers, Dion Charles, is their most prolific option in attack and his performance will most likely determine the outcome of the tie.
The biggest problem that O’Neill has to solve, is finding the balance between attacking threat and defensive security, essentially managing the risk of counter attacks. I don’t expect the Green and White Army to be all guns blazing to begin with, but as the game continues, they will have to flip the switch at some point. However, having lost all their games bar San Marino, squad morale wont exactly be at an all time high prior to the huge challenge that they will attempt to undertake.
The game should be quite close but I predict that once the first goal goes in, the game will naturally open up. With Kazakhstan being defensively solid and Northern Ireland struggling to score, I cant see the hosts losing. At some point the visitors will have to take risks, which leaves them vulnerable.
The final prediction is Kazakhstan 2-1 Northern Ireland.