NI’s Fur­ness out to turn up the heat on Nor­way

Belfast Telegraph - - NEWS - BY GRA­HAM LUNEY

NORTH­ERN Ire­land women’s World Cup qual­i­fy­ing ad­ven­ture kicks off with a daunt­ing test in Nor­way to­day, but the girls in green are ready to show their met­tle.

Nor­way are a Euro­pean force to be feared and Al­fie Wylie’s side have other strong op­po­nents in Group 3 with Nether­lands, Repub­lic of Ire­land and Slo­vakia on the hori­zon.

North­ern Ire­land (60th) may be bot­tom seeds in the group but they are tar­get­ing third place and aim to spring a few sur­prises along the road to the finals in France 2019.

Euro 2017 win­ners Nether­lands, now ranked sev­enth in the world, are firm favourites to top the group while 1995 win­ners Nor­way (14th), Repub­lic of Ire­land (33rd) and Slo­vakia (43rd) are all above North­ern Ire­land in the rank­ings.

The Nor­we­gians, who took part in Women’s Euro 2017 and have never failed to qual­ify for a World Cup, will be look­ing to make a strong start at the city sta­dium in Fredrik­stad.

Af­ter losing all three games in the group stages of that tour­na­ment, they will be look­ing to hit back, but Wylie has a strong squad to kick off the cam­paign in­clud­ing three full-time play­ers in Rachel Fur­ness (Crys­tal Palace Ladies), Si­mone Mag­ill (Ever­ton Ladies) and Laura Raf­ferty (Brighton and Hove Al­bion).

Fur­ness, with 16 goals, is the record scorer for the North­ern Ire­land se­nior women’s team and will be look­ing to bol­ster her tally.

“We have a very ex­pe­ri­enced squad and are al­most at full strength,” Wylie said. “Nor­way had a five-week camp prior to three weeks at the Eu­ros so they will be very fit and well pre­pared. Their squad fea­tures lots of full­time play­ers who op­er­ate in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent coun­tries.

“This is ob­vi­ously a dif­fi­cult game but one we are re­ally look­ing for­ward to tak­ing part in. We have not been to­gether since the start of April but train­ing has gone well with a very good at­mos­phere and lots of en­thu­si­asm.”

There’s a feel-good fac­tor in the North­ern Ire­land camp af­ter the Euro­pean Women’s Un­der-19 Cham­pi­onship on these shores was a re­sound­ing suc­cess.

Goal­keeper Jac­que­line Burns and striker Lau­ren Wade, who were not re­leased to play by their univer­sity in Amer­ica, are ruled out along with for­wards Avilla Ber­gin, Kirsty McGuin­ness and goal­keeper Emma Hig­gins, but Julie Nel­son could win her 96th cap.

Lin­field Ladies shot-stop­per Lau­ren Perry (16) is ex­pected to make her se­nior de­but.

North­ern Ire­land’s sec­ond game in the cam­paign is against the Repub­lic at Mourneview Park on Tues­day (7.30pm, free en­try).

“We have a great bunch of girls now, our best ever squad in North­ern Ire­land,” said Wylie.

Mid­fielder Ken­dra McMullan added: “I’m back in the North­ern Ire­land set-up and it’s great to be back. They are buzzing. We are go­ing to work hard for the next two games com­ing up. There is no bet­ter feel­ing than to play for your coun­try so I’m glad to be back. I’m go­ing to work hard.”

The seven group win­ners will qual­ify to join France in the finals.

The four run­ners-up with the best records against the sides first, third and fourth in their groups will ad­vance to the play-offs, which will con­sist of two rounds of two-legged knock­out ties in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber 2018 to de­cide Europe’s last qual­i­fier.

The Repub­lic of Ire­land are now coached by Colin Bell, who led FFC Frank­furt to glory in the 2015 Uefa Women’s Cham­pi­ons League.

Ready to rock: Rachel Fur­ness is hop­ing to add to her record tally of goals for the NI women

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