Euro 2020: Gareth McAuley fit to play against Belarus

Belarus an opportunity to make a 'great start' - Nicholl
Euro 2020 qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland v Belarus
Venue: Windsor Park, Belfast Date: Sunday, 24 March Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Coverage: Live coverage on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Sport website; Highlights on BBC One NI at 22:30

Centre-back Gareth McAuley has returned to training and could feature in Northern Ireland's Euro 2020 qualifier against Belarus on Sunday.

A hamstring injury ruled the Rangers player out of Thursday's 2-0 win over Estonia in Belfast.

Blackburn's Corry Evans and winger Gavin Whyte have been ruled out of the second qualifier.

Like McAuley, Evans missed the campaign opener with a hamstring problem while a thigh injury ruled out Oxford's Whyte.

McAuley, who has 80 international caps, played an integral part in Northern Ireland's successful Euro 2016 qualifying campaign before becoming the first Northern Irishman to score at a major championships in 30 years.

Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart were manager Michael O'Neill's starting centre-back pairing and helped secure a clean sheet in the victory over Estonia.

Niall McGinn and Steven Davis scored second half goals at Windsor Park as Northern Ireland ended a run of eight competitive games without a win.

"It was totally different in the second half," reflected Northern Ireland assistant manager Jimmy Nicholl.

"Wide men were getting crosses in and scoring goals, midfielders getting in the box and trying to score goals.

"Everything that we asked them to do in the first half all came together in the second half."

Gareth McAuley
McAuley last featured for Northern Ireland in their final Nations League game against Austria in November

Taking points from their opening fixtures is seen as crucial to Northern Ireland's qualification hopes with O'Neill's side ending their Group C campaign in the autumn with double headers against the Netherlands and Germany.

The Dutch also got off to a winning start on Thursday with a 4-0 victory over Belarus in Rotterdam, putting them top of the group after the opening round of fixtures.

"We have to make sure that we do not give Belarus any sense that they have a chance at all," insisted Nicholl.

"We are at home, we have come off a good result and they are travelling after a poor result so if we get at them right away and unrest them, there is an opportunity for the lads to get off to a great start."

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