Northern Ireland-Portugal Preview: Ronaldo a doubt for crucial qualifier

Portugal are hoping to be able to call on Cristiano Ronaldo as they look to take a step closer to World Cup qualification against Northern Ireland.

The Real Madrid winger sat out training earlier this week with a muscle problem, but he is still expected to feature at Windsor Park on Friday as Portugal go in search of a win that would maintain their position at the top of Group F.

Goalkeeper Beto and attacking midfielder Danny also missed training but they are expected to be fit for the clash, which forms the first part of a double-header that will also see Paulo Bento’s side meet in a friendly with Brazil in Boston on September 10.

Bento has opted to recall Hugo Almeida after the striker missed the friendly with the Netherlands in August, while he has also called up Malaga left-back Vitorino Antunes and midfielders Josue and Andre Martins for a game that will go a long way towards deciding the qualifiers for the showpiece in Brazil next year.

Bento’s side currently hold a two-point lead over Russia but they have played a game more than Fabio Capello’s men, with both countries having enjoyed a 1-0 home win in the corresponding fixtures between the pair.

For Northern Ireland, meanwhile, their hopes of making the finals are all but over, although they will be keen to build on their shock 1-0 win over Russia in August.

Midfielder Chris Brunt returns after missing that clash through suspension, while Kyle Lafferty has recovered from an Achilles injury.

Manchester United defender Jonny Evans, who missed the last qualifier through illness, is vying for a place while boss Michael O’Neill has retained Michael O’Connor and Lee Hodson after they were called in as cover for the Russia clash.

Burnley left-back Daniel Lafferty is suspended for the visit of Portugal but will be available for the trip to Luxembourg on Tuesday.

O’Neill’s side have had a mixed qualifying campaign so far, with the win against Russia and an impressive 1-1 draw in Portugal being tempered by home draws with both Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.

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