|Venues: Geneva & Sofia Dates: Saturday, 9 October & Tuesday, 12 October|
|Coverage: Live radio and text commentary of both games online; Highlights on BBC One NI and BBC iPlayer at 22:35 BST|
Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough has said his final message to his players will be a simple one before Saturday’s vital World Cup qualifier against Switzerland.
Northern Ireland go into the Group C meeting in Geneva in third place, three points behind the second-placed Swiss in the race for a play-off spot.
Baraclough said he and his players are fully aware of the huge importance of the game to their qualification hopes, but insisted it will not alter his final preparations.
“I don’t think there will be too many Churchillian speeches,” said the former NI Under-21 boss, who is without a number of important players for the trip.
“It will be a simple message, nothing too over-complicated. You are reminding them throughout the week as you are preparing, and the players know themselves about the magnitude of this game.
“For me, it is simple nuggets of information either to individuals or to the group. You feel it building during the week and sometimes the shortest of things to say before they go out is the best.”
‘Every game becomes the crucial game’
Middlesbrough’s Paddy McNair will take the captain’s armband from Steven Davis for the match on what will be his 50th international cap.
Group leaders Italy are six points ahead of Switzerland and nine better off than Northern Ireland, who are away to fourth-placed Bulgaria on Tuesday night.
Second place, and the play-off spot that it delivers, is Northern Ireland’s most realistic route to World Cup qualification. Defeat against Switzerland, who they drew 0-0 with at Windsor Park in September, would make that extremely difficult, with both sides having three games left to play after Saturday’s meeting.
Baraclough refused to be drawn on whether this was a “must-win” match, though acknowledged a victory for either side would put them in pole position to finish second.
“If we were to draw, our World Cup hopes would not be totally gone,” he continued.
“We will look to go and win the game, we’ll see where we are at the end of it and we’ll move on from there in whatever direction that is.
“We know the magnitude of the game and whatever side wins it is probably going to be in pole position to go on, but I am one of those that [thinks] anything can happen at any stage.
“If you can still qualify numerically then you keep going. Yes, it is a big game, we all know that. As you come down to the final games in the group and things haven’t been sorted then every game becomes the crucial one.
“For the moment it is in our hands still and if we can beat Switzerland it puts us in a good position to grab second place at least, and that is what we are aiming for.”
‘I hide under a bed after naming the squad’
While experienced players such as Stuart Dallas, Paddy McNair and Josh Magennis are available for Northern Ireland again after missing last month’s draw, Baraclough has once again had to deal with a number of injuries to his squad.
Shayne Lavery, Ali McCann, Corry Evans and Michael Smith are injured and out of the double header, as is Jonny Evans, though he has not yet been ruled out of the Bulgaria trip.
Rarely one to let disappointment show, Baraclough was philosophical about the situation.
“You have to have contingency plans and thoughts in your head about the ‘what ifs?’ when those situations arrive,” said.
“I know that naming the squad a week or 10 days before our first match that we have still got two games domestically to be played. I hide under a bed on the Saturday or Sunday before.
“You have got to be ready and the players that have come in are strong players. It is their chance to step up and perform for their country.”
Captain McNair will ‘make mum and dad proud’
Captain-for-the-night McNair, who made his senior Northern Ireland debut in 2015, will come back into the team after missing September’s draw with the Swiss through suspension.
Likely to join Davis and Jordan Thompson in a three-man midfield, the former Manchester United man said it will be a hugely proud night for him and his family.
“I used to go and watch Northern Ireland as fan so it will be a proud feeling to lead the side out. I wish my mum and dad could be there to see it,” he said.
“I will just go into the game like any other one, I am not going to change too much.
“I’m a quiet lad around the dressing room so I’m not going to be doing a roaring speech before the game. I’m just going to be myself but I’m looking forward to leading out the boys.
“I haven’t really thought about the future too much, but if the chance [to captain Northern Ireland again] came along I’d be very happy to do so.”