FIFA’s Dubious World Ranking: 129
World Cup appearances: 3
Last appearance: 1986
Best performance: Quarter-finalists (1958, but 1982 gets mentioned an awful lot)
Russia v Northern Ireland
Friday 4pm – Lokomotiv Stadium, Moscow – Sky Sports 1
At a time when Northern Ireland are rebuilding and integrating some new faces into the set-up, they could have done with an easier draw. What they got was a group nastier than a Leon Knight tweet. With Russia and Portugal the big boys of the group, qualification is going to be nearly impossible and with Israel and the emerging Azerbaijan also there, mid-table respectability will also be a tough enough ask.
The toughest assignment of the campaign is first up as they travel to Moscow. Russia will be smarting from the experience of looking like they were about to win Euro 2012 and then not making it past the group stages. The fact that Fabio Capello has been appointed manager negates hopes that things had gone stale under Dick Advocaat and Northern Ireland might be able to capitalise.
Northern Ireland were actually fourth seeds when the draw was made in July 2011, but going solely on the FIFA rankings, they’re now considered the whipping boys of the group just over a year later. FIFA rankings have been proven to be more wrong than being attracted to your cousin, however, and Norn Iron aren’t as bad as their lowly position suggests. They paid a heavy price for their slump towards the end of the last qualifying campaign, but they aren’t the clueless lemmings the rankings indicate.
Still though, they won’t beat Russia and damage limitation is the aim.
The ‘I don’t like giving predictions’ prediction: Russia -2 goals at 7/4
Odds of needing to book a flight to Brazil: 14/1
There’s more chance of Ian Paisley being made Pope.