Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Michael O'Neill facing a crucial double

Northern Ireland captain Steve Davis and his team-mates are searching for the right answers
Northern Ireland captain Steve Davis and his team-mates are searching for the right answers

It was a poor result in Malta. A draw was not what was required or expected as Northern Ireland continued their long, depressing, winless run.

The players didn't perform and fans started to ask questions about the manager. Indeed, had it not been for a fine save from the visiting goalkeeper Northern Ireland would have suffered an embarrassing loss in the Valletta friendly.

A quick synopsis of what happened on Wednesday night? Well, yes and, would you believe, another match involving Malta and Northern Ireland back in 2005.

Then Northern Ireland, under Lawrie Sanchez, drew 1-1, making it 10 games without victory, and were grateful to Maik Taylor saving a last gasp penalty to avoid a demoralising defeat.

Eight years on with Michael O'Neill in charge, his team, despite starting with six Premier League players, could only manage a 0-0 scoreline against the part-timers with Alan Mannus denying ex-Coventry striker Michael Mifsud late in the fray.

It was extremely difficult to find positive elements to take from the dismal midweek outing because it's now 12 games without a win, eight of those with O'Neill as boss.

But there is hope because should the history of 2005 repeat itself we'll all be wearing huge smiles next month.

Back then after the draw with Malta, Northern Ireland won their next two games, World Cup qualifiers at home to Azerbaijan and wait for it, England, and in doing so kicked-off a sensational run of results which continued for a couple of years.

Just like in 2005, following a dreary draw in Malta, Northern Ireland's next two fixtures are at home and are in the World Cup – Russia and Israel this time providing the opposition.

Fate or just wishful thinking?

We'll find out on March 22 when Fabio Capello's men are in Belfast and four days later when Israel play at Windsor Park.

What we know from the game plan in Malta is that not surprisingly O'Neill will operate a 4-5-1 formation against Russia.

He argued that it was actually a 4-3-3 system in Valletta with Shane Ferguson and Niall McGinn supporting lone striker Will Grigg but either way there was a lack of creativity, ideas and vision in attack.

Many fans would like to see the manager operate 4-4-2, successful for our wee country in the past, but he insists that is now an outdated system in international football.

O'Neill's not one to change his mind quickly, as his consistent failure to make positive substitutions early enough confirms, so expect 4-5-1 (or 4-3-3) to be used for the remainder of the World Cup campaign.

There are six games left, three at home against Russia, Israel and Portugal and three away to Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and Israel.

Currently Northern Ireland occupy fourth place in Group F and O'Neill has vowed they won't finish any lower.

If he is true to his word, progress of sorts will have been made because Northern Ireland were fifth in their Euro 2012 qualifying section.

Right now though with zero wins on the board under O'Neill, some supporters are beginning to suggest that the team is going nowhere under the former Shamrock Rovers boss, whose contract is up at the end of the World Cup qualifiers.

The next two games will tell the tale on that one. Lose both and he'll lose the fans and probably some players too.

Take something from the fixtures, preferably at least one win, and O'Neill, the players and supporters can move forward with greater confidence.

Facing Russia, who will have most of the possession, should suit O'Neill's tactics and the supporters will be up for it after Fabio Capello's disrespectful remarks regarding Northern Ireland in Moscow at the start of the campaign.

Hopefully with the Kop bouncing the players will be inspired to deliver the type of fighting performance they put in during the 1-1 draw in Portugal rather than the dross on display against Luxembourg.

As for Israel they are hit and miss. Get them on an off night and with a fresh Kyle Lafferty back after serving his silly suspension, a victory in that one is distinctly possible, especially if the players have done themselves proud against Russia.

Interestingly Malta striker Michael Mifsud told me yesterday that despite recent results he thinks Northern Ireland could spring a surprise next month against Russia.

The reason?

"You have good players playing for big name clubs in England who should relish taking on a team like Russia. We stopped Northern Ireland because we got our tactics right making sure they didn't create clear cut chances," said 31-year-old Valletta forward Mifsud, hoping for a return to English football.

"If Northern Ireland can get their tactics right against Russia they have a chance. I would not rule out a shock that night."

Let's hope he is right and here's to the pain in Malta turning into joy at Windsor, just as it did almost a decade ago.

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