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Release Date: 06/09/2012

Author: Marshall Gillespie

DEFENDER Craig Cathcart is under no illusions how difficult the task is facing Northern Ireland when they embark on their World Cup Qualifying campaign with a tricky encounter against Russia in the intimidating atmosphere of the Lokomotiv Stadium on Friday.

“The Russians may have had a disappointing Euro 2012 but there is real quality throughout the side and we could not have asked for a sterner test in our first game,” admitted the former Manchester United player.”

What we have to do though is go there and play it very tight at the back, something we have failed to do in recent matches.  If we can eliminate those defensive errors, then hopefully we can nick a point which would set us up nicely for the game against Luxembourg at Windsor Park.”

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has now been in the job for just over seven months and given a total of 29 players caps during his opening three international matches in charge.

One of those players, Olympiakos goalkeeper Roy Carroll has been brought back in to the fold after a five year absence from the International scene to provide stiff competition for current number one Lee Camp and St Johnstone net minder Alan Mannus.

The 34-year-old Tamlaght man got the nod over Camp when he started against Finland last month and if he is named in the side to face Russia it will be Carroll’s first competitive game for his country since the stunning 3-2 defeat of Spain at Windsor Park exactly six years ago.

Twelve goals conceded and no clean sheets in three games is not a pleasing statistic for the ex-Shamrock Rovers supremo, but with the return of Manchester United’s Jonny Evans and former skipper Aaron Hughes to the squad, O’Neill knows he will be adding real quality and experience to the back four.

The battle for supremacy in the midfield on Friday evening will be hugely important and the return of Steven Davis to the Premier League with Southampton in England after leaving cash strapped Rangers during the summer should give Northern Ireland some extra quality in the middle of the park.

One player who could partner Davis in the centre is former Manchester United player Oliver Norwood who will be seeking to make his first competitive start after leaving Old Trafford in the close season to find regular first team football with newly promoted Championship outfit Huddersfield Town. 

The 21-year-old, who played at U17 and U16 level for England before switching his allegiances to Northern Ireland, has an exceptional right-foot and during his days with the Under-21 squad scored a couple of exquisite goals from dead balls against Germany and the Czech Republic.

With Northern Ireland’s record scorer David Healy not selected for the double header responsibility for leading the strike force will fall on the shoulders of FC Sion’s Kyle Lafferty.

The 24 year-old from Fermanagh, who after missing so many internationals over the past 12 months through injury, was back to his best barnstorming against the Finns and capped his 31st appearance for his country with a ninth goal. 

Lafferty’s presence up front could well be complemented by the speed and tenacity of Rangers’ Dean Shiels after the two players built up a good understanding in last month’s friendly, with Shiels having a hand not only in Lafferty’s goal, but also in Shame Ferguson’s very impressive 7th minute opener.

Unfortunately Shane Ferguson is out of the Moscow clash with a groin injury, while Burnley’s Martin Paterson’s also misses out because of a hamstring complaint. Both players fitness will though be assessed ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier with Luxembourg.  Definitely out of both matches is Celtic’s Paddy McCourt who has a groin injury.

Meanwhile former England supremo Fabio Capello, who took over as Russian coach  following their poor showing during the Euro 2012 finals, sprung a number of surprises after omitting Andrei Arshavin and Reading’s Roman Pavlyuchenko from his 24 strong squad to face Northern Ireland and Israel.

This will be Northern Ireland’s fifth ever meeting against the Russians, the previous four have ended in two draws and two defeats, both losses coming in the old USSR back in 1969 and 1971.

While the prospect of Northern Ireland leaving the Lokomotiv Stadium with all three points against a team currently ranked 13th in the FIFA World Rankings looks slim, remember, the match will take place on the seventh anniversary of one Our Wee Country’s most memorable nights when Mr Capello’s ex-employers succumbed to David Healy’s 74th minute goal at Windsor Park!!! 

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  • NI training pre Russia - sept 2012

    Northern Ireland defender Craig Cathcart

    Picture: Darren Kidd / Press Eye

  • NI training pre Russia - sept 2012

    Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis pictured during the team's training session on Thursday evening at the Lokomotiv Stadium, Moscow ahead of Friday night's World Cup Qualifier against Russia.

    Picture: Darren Kidd / Press Eye

  • NI training pre Russia - sept 2012

    Northern Ireland's Aaron Hughes pictured during the team's training session at the Lokomotiv Stadium, Moscow.

    Picture: Darren Kidd / Press Eye

  • NI training pre Russia - sept 2012

    Gareth McAuley.

    Picture: Darren Kidd / Press Eye

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