Preview: Northern Ireland vs. Latvia

Sports Mole previews Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 warm-up game at home to Latvia.

Northern Ireland begin the build-up to their first international tournament in 30 years when they play a friendly against Latvia at Windsor Park on Friday.

However, for the Baltic nation the game is the start of a rebuilding process after finishing bottom of their Euro 2016 qualifying group.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's midfielder Steven Davis (L) celebrates with teammates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying Group F football match between Northern Ireland and Greece at Windsor Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Octobe© Getty Images

Such was the magnitude of the achievement from Michael O'Neill's men in reaching next year's finals in France that former Northern Ireland defensive stalwart Gerry Taggart suggested that the IFA should award the former Shamrock Rovers boss a new four-year deal.

The IFA is accustomed to offering contracts which only cover each two-year international cycle, but the 46-year-old is keen to guide the Green and White Army through to at least the end of qualification for the 2020 European Championships.

Taggart, who was capped 51 times, thinks that making Euro 2016 is "worth another two years in itself" and warned Northern Ireland's governing body to act fast or risk losing O'Neill to club football in time to come.

O'Neill side have certainly not achieved qualification the easy way, beating 2004 champions Greece home and away, as well as finishing ahead of Romania in winning Group F.

Indeed, Norn Iron are currently unbeaten in seven matches. It is the best run since the team of the mid-'80s, which was captained by veteran keeper Pat Jennings and played in the 1986 World Cup.

Strangely, Northern Ireland are searching for their first victory in a friendly game since 2008, when they beat Georgia 4-1 in Belfast.

Recent form: DDWDWD


Latvia's Kaspars Dubra (R) vies with Turkey's Umut Bulut (L) during the Euro 2016 Group A qualifying football match Latvia vs Turkey in Riga, Latvia on October 13, 2014© Getty Images

For the Baltic nation, the next year will be about developing a team capable of mounting a stronger bid for qualification for major tournaments, after finishing bottom of Group A.

However, O'Neill has claimed that he expects Latvia to provide a "stern test", and the Northern Ireland coach may have a point given recent results away from home.

In their last three games away from Riga, they have drawn with each of the qualifiers from the group, including coming from two goals down to draw with surprise qualifiers Iceland in Reykjavik last month.

They did need a stoppage-time goal to earn a point in Turkey, but also led for an hour against the Czech Republic before being denied victory by a Vaclav Pilar equaliser.

Nevertheless, Latvia ended the qualifying campaign without a win and, courtesy of defeat against minnows Kazakhstan, ultimately finished below the nation, who have only won nine competitive games in their history.

If they are to mount a serious push under current boss Marian Pahars they will need to address a leaky defence - which conceded 19 in qualifying, albeit with six of those in one match against the Netherlands - as well as finding more goals at the other end of the pitch.

Recent form: DLDLDL

Team News

Chris Brunt of West Bromwich Albion in action during the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea at the Hawthorns on August 23, 2015© Getty Images

The hosts will be without Chris Brunt who, despite playing in West Bromwich Albion's defeat to Manchester United on Saturday, is nursing an ongoing groin problem.

Red Devils defender Paddy McNair is also sidelined with an abdominal injury, but has still joined up with O'Neill's squad.

However, Notts County keeper Roy Carroll is with the squad and could feature after playing in his club's shock FA Cup defeat at the hands of non-League Salford City.

Meanwhile, Latvia's hopes of picking up a first win in six games may rest on 21-year-old striker Valerijs Sabala, who netted three goals in his country's curtailed Euro 2016 campaign.

Northern Ireland possible starting lineup:
McGovern; Evans, McAuley, Cathcart, Hodson; Norwood, Baird, Davis; McGinn, Lafferty, Dallas

Latvia possible starting lineup:
Vaņins, Maksimenko, Dubra, Gabovs, Gorkss, Laizans, Visnakovs, Cauna, Zjuzins, Sabala, Rakels

Head To Head

Latvia only came into being as a football team before qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, but the Green and White Army have had the better of previous encounters with the Baltic nation.

In all, Northern Ireland have won four of the six matches against the Sarkanbaltsarkanie, including a 1-0 victory in a Euro 2008 qualifier at Windsor Park, with all-time record scorer David Healy netting the only goal.

However, Latvia have won two games against Norn Iron, one courtesy of a Chris Baird own goal in September 2007 and the other a 2-1 victory in Belfast against a side featuring the likes of Iain Dowie and Keith Gillespie on the bench.

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We say: Northern Ireland 3-1 Latvia

With Latvia proving stronger on their travels in recent games, O'Neill's comments about a "stern test" could be proved right. However, Northern Ireland are in the midst of their best run since the days of Billy Bingham's class of '86 and should be too good for their opponents.

Who will win Friday's friendly clash between Northern Ireland and Latvia?

Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland
Shane Ferguson of Northern Ireland during the Euro 2016 Qualifier between Northern Ireland and Faroe Islands at Windsor Park on October 11, 2014
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