Northern Ireland - Greece Preview: History and France in sight for Michael's men

Thursday evening sees Northern Ireland welcome Greece to Windsor Park in the penultimate EURO 2016 qualifying fixture, with the hosts on the brink of making it to their first ever European Championship finals.

Can Northern Ireland make history?

To put the game's magnitude into perspective, the extra 1500 tickets put on sale by the Irish Football Association sold out within 180 seconds. Some estimates from local newspapers suggest that demand was so far in excess of the extra 10% or so increase in capacity that 20,000 tickets would have been needed to satisfy everyone's desire to attend.

The electric atmosphere will engulf the stands and has already taken the country by storm, though Michael O'Neill's side will need to channel the raucous crowd in the right way. There will be moments were the tension is unbearable, though the 11,700 strong crowd will be sure to drive the team on when they need it most. O'Neill has made constant reference to the fans throughout and will now see this as a chance to repay their support.

When it was announced that the tournament was expanding from 16 to 24 teams, it was greeted by bemusement and a chance for the smaller sides to break into the limelight. However, no-one can can take away the achievements of Austria, Iceland and Northern Ireland, who are top of Group F and are also the group's top scorers.

O'Neill without several key players

They will be without their main goal-getter, Kyle Lafferty, as well as Chris Baird, Jonny Evans and Conor McLaughlin. Evans will miss out with a calf injury that he picked up in West Bromwich Albion's 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace at the weekend. The trio aside from the West Brom defender are all suspended, though all are expected to be in the line-up that will face Finland on Sunday.

Despite being without four regulars, Northern Ireland have reason to be confident. They have overcome adversity already in the group, to be top is evidence of that, though the late comeback to beat Hungary and end the wait for an away win in the first game of the qualifiers set the tone for what was to follow. Perhaps it was appropriate for Lafferty to stab home in the 93rd minute to keep their hopes of making France on the straight and narrow.

Greeks in contrasting form

The same can not be said for the Greeks, who have mustered just three points from a possible 24. Under-21 coach Kostas Tsanas is currently in charge of the team, and is the third coach to be in charge of them this term. Sergio Markarián and Claudio Ranieri tried and failed to emulate the success that Fernando Santos and Otto Rehhagel had, meaning this is Tsanas' second spell as interim.

They will be without Kostas Manolas and Kyriakos Papadopoulos, as both defenders struggle with injury. Aside from that, it is hard to comprehend just how Greece have struggled so much. Players simply haven't performed to the levels they can reach, although many would still expect them to have at least challenged for qualification and not fighting a battle to avoid finishing last.

Greece will look to their youthful attack and midfield to make the difference. Kostas Fortounis has been in impressive form for Olympiacos this term, while the energetic Dimitris Pelkas could make a real difference going forward. Benfica duo Andreas Samaris and Kostas Mitroglou look certain to feature from the start and will, mostly like, be crucial to any Greek success.

Predicted line-ups

Northern Ireland: (4-1-4-1) Carroll; McNair, Cathcart, McAuley, Brunt; C. Evans; Ward, Davis, Norwood, Dallas; Magennis.

Greece: (4-2-3-1) Karnezis; Torosidis, Sokratis, Kitsiou, Holebas; Samaris, Tziolis; Pelkas, Kone, Fortounis; Mitroglou.

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