Kenny Shiels says he is firmly focused on game one as the Northern Ireland senior women’s team get ready to tackle a double header against North Macedonia.
The first instalment is today (Thursday) at noon (GMT) at the Football Federation of North Macedonia Training Centre in Skopje.
The Northern Ireland Women boss insists he is taking one game at a time and that his players are ready for the challenge.
Shiels has a strong panel to choose from today. The only player missing from his original squad for the game is striker Caitlin McGuinness, although she will be back on Monday at Seaview for the second FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 qualifier against North Macedonia, a game which is already sold out.
By contrast the Macedonians have been decimated by injury.
Their absentees include star player and captain Natasa Andonova, who plays for Levante in Spain, and prolific striker Gentjana Rochi, who plies her trade in Finland with Kuopion Palloseura.
Also missing through injury is forward Eli Jakovska, who is on the books of Bulgarian side Lokomotiv Stara Zagora.
Defender Pavlina Nikolovska (ZFK Dragon), midfielder Jana Chubrinoskva (ZFK Istatov), midfielder Sindis Polozhani (Junajted) and forward Teodora Dimoska (ZFK Tiverija) are all crocked as well.
North Macedonia coach Kiril Izov has called up several players in the 16 to 21 age bracket to his panel. Katerina Mileska, a 32-year-old defender who plays for ZFK Despina in North Macedonia, is the most experienced member of his squad, with just over 40 caps under her belt.
The Macedonians’ younger players are an unknown quantity – and Shiels will be wary of them.
However, Northern Ireland go into the match as firm favourites and the manager has admitted three points are a must in Skopje if they are to stay in touch with top seeds England and second seeds Austria in European Qualifying Group D.
He pointed out that he also has a long injury list, with strikers Emily Wilson and Casey Howe, midfielders Samantha Kelly, Emma McMaster and Megan Bell plus defenders Ashley Hutton, Toni-Leigh Finnegan and Abbie Magee all currently sidelined.
The Northern Ireland boss said he expects the Macedonians to be attack minded and to play with high energy.
But he added that his players have trained well this week and are “fully prepared” to work their socks off for each other to deliver another three points in Group D.
Northern Ireland currently lie third behind England and Austria in the table. They have seven points from four qualifiers to date. North Macedonia are in fourth place in the six-team group with three points from four matches.