Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Northern Ireland's objective is to build for Euro qualifiers

Kneesy does it: Luis Suarez is wheeled out of hospital after the surgery which rules him out of facing Northern Ireland

When it was announced that Northern Ireland would play Uruguay in a pre-World Cup friendly, just one name came to mind – LUIS SUAREZ.

Fans were excited by the thrill of the Liverpool superstar taking on our team, journalists were savouring the stories that Suarez would provide and the Northern Ireland players were all hoping they would end up with his shirt!

In case you are wondering, Ryan McLaughlin would have gone home with it... Liverpool connection, you see.

Then came the news that Suarez was in danger of missing the World Cup because of a knee injury.

You can be sure he'll be back in time to play in Brazil, but keyhole surgery has ruled him out of the friendly with Northern Ireland in Montevideo.

Bang goes that then.

If we are being honest the absence of Suarez means Northern Ireland's match with Uruguay has lost much of its edge, glamour and wow factor. And for the players there is no longer the opportunity to test themselves against the best striker on the planet right now.

Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis, on the winning side against Suarez at Anfield last season, Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird have all taken him on at some stage in their Premier League careers, but for most of Michael O'Neill's squad facing up to to the Liverpool No. 7 would have been a new experience from which they could have learned a great deal.

On the upside though for a vastly understrength Northern Ireland side, Suarez's injury will help keep the score down.

To Suarez every second on the pitch matters, even in a friendly with Northern Ireland, so he would have been gunning for goals... and lots of them.

O'Neill's players will, of course, still be facing some high class performers, but none approaching the same level that Suarez has reached in the past year. Only Cristiano Ronaldo stands alongside the Uruguayan at present.

O'Neill would love to have more of his big players in South America, in particular Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley at the back and Jamie Ward and Martin Paterson further forward, but he knows he must get on with what he has got for the game with Uruguay (12.30am our time early tomorrow morning) and another in Chile a few days later.

As our international boss, O'Neill has celebrated just a solitary victory in two and a half years in charge – against Fabio Capello's Russia at Windsor Park.

If he lands number two in Montevideo it would be a far greater shock than the win over the Russians in Belfast and one of the best results in our nation's history. Highly unlikely.

What he doesn't want is a hammering doing morale no good whatsoever.

Truth be told a low scoring defeat would be acceptable and respectable for O'Neill.

He'll also hope younger players in the party such as McLaughlin, Fulham's Liam Donnelly and Doncaster's Luke McCullough show enough against Uruguay and Chile to play themselves into his thoughts for the European Championship qualifying campaign, starting in September away to Hungary.

That's the really important game for Northern Ireland.

If the next two matches inspire the manager and players to deliver then, the South American trip will have been worthwhile.

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