Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has told his players to make every training session count between now and Euro 2016.
All eyes are firmly on next summer’s trip to France after securing their first major finals appearance since 1986 and Friday’s home clash against Latvia is the first of five friendlies before the finals, with O’Neill already thinking about the composition of his 23-man squad.
That is exactly the number of players on duty in Belfast this week but with Chris Brunt injured, Aaron Hughes staying with Melbourne City this week, and a handful of other recent squad members also hoping for another chance, there are hard decisions ahead.
“I said to the players the other night that every training session is high stakes now,” said O’Neill.
“I can only put 17 on the pitch on Friday night and I’ll have two games in March but I’m not big on just changing the team for the sake of it.
“So every session we have is important to these players because the time we spend with them is so limited.
“People who are in the squad but aren’t in the team have to prove they deserve a place. That’s either with what they’re doing at their club or how they do when they come here.”
O’Neill is likely to prioritise game time for those who have been sitting out for their clubs in recent weeks, and may even consider another look at the 3-5-2 formation he has used previously, but he has no intention of awarding cheap caps.
“The regular players want to play and they deserve to play,” he said.
“It’s not a case of giving someone a shirt – they have to take that off the person who is playing.
“Sometimes that can happen through injury. We’re deprived of Brunty for this game so we’ll look at that scenario at left-back and there’s a chance for someone to stake a claim.
“It is very much about players taking their chance.”