Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Steven Beacom: No easy games in football? Northern Ireland have to prove that there are

Shane Ferguson has shaken off a groin injury to join the Northern Ireland squad

Luxembourg keep breaking their own football world record. Out of all the nations on this planet, they top the list for most successive failed attempts to qualify for the World Cup finals.

The record stands at 18, from 1934 to 2010. It will be 19 next year and will keep on rising.

Agreed, they have improved in the last few campaigns, though not nearly enough that Northern Ireland should be worried about them tonight at Windsor Park.

You may hear the phrase “there are no easy games in international football” uttered at some stage by Northern Ireland staff before kick-off, referencing Luxembourg taking the lead and losing only 2-1 at home to Portugal on Friday to make the point, but the bottom line is that the game tonight is about as easy as it is going to get for Michael O'Neill's team in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

And when chances like this come their way, the Northern Ireland players must be mentally and physically strong enough to take them.

Only a win would be deemed acceptable to follow up the 2-0 defeat in Russia on Friday.

And that means going for the throat straight from the first whistle.

This is not a time for caution as was, understandably, the case in Moscow.

This is a time for boss O’Neill to be confident in his players and bold enough to tell his team to pour forward, put the weaker opposition under pressure and get the home crowd going, knowing that men at the back like Premier League regulars Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley are more than good enough to deal with anything Luxembourg can offer in attack.

O'Neill has to bring the fit again Shane Ferguson into the team with Dean Shiels joining him in the starting line-up. Corry Evans and Jamie Ward are the players to make way from Friday's XI.

Classy Rangers ace Shiels deserved much more game time than six minutes in Moscow. Here's hoping he gets 90 in Belfast, playing just behind Kyle Lafferty.

Those two could do some serious damage, especially if Chris Brunt and Steve Davis also have their creative juices flowing.

Then there's young Ferguson. Ever since I saw him in his early days for Newcastle, I thought he looked a genuine talent. In his few appearances for Northern Ireland he has excited the Windsor faithful with his passing and shooting ability, evident when scoring a cracker against Finland in a friendly last month.

There were fears he would opt for the Republic but, as recent events with Darron Gibson and James McClean have shown, the grass isn't always greener...

Ferguson has the ability to be a big player for years to come for Northern Ireland and he should be a key performer tonight.

Yes, I know Luxembourg are ahead of us in the often ludicrous Fifa rankings (106 to 129), but a quick scan through each squad tells you Northern Ireland have the superior players by a distance.

O'Neill has managed his country four times now without a win.

Number five will change that. Nothing else will do.

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