Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill: Manchester United's Jonny Evans will be good for Northern Ireland and Louis van Gaal

O’Neill says long-awaited return of defender Evans is sure to help both club and country

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is convinced the long awaited return of Manchester United defender Jonny Evans from injury will provide a major boost for both club and country this season.

On Monday night Evans played his first game for United since September, coming on as a substitute in the 2-1 Premier League victory at Southampton, and is set to start at home to Liverpool on Sunday.

While an ankle injury sustained early on in a 5-3 defeat at Leicester kept him out of United's side for three months, it's now over a year since he played for Northern Ireland.

Indeed by the time the next international comes around in March, it will have been 16 months since Evans pulled on the green shirt.

In his absence O'Neill's team have performed exceptionally in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign winning their first three group games. They currently stand second in the table which would be enough to take them to the finals in France.

Regardless of any success Northern Ireland have had without 26-year-old Evans, O'Neill is delighted to see him playing again and believes United boss Louis van Gaal will feel the same way.

"I was really pleased for Jonny when he came on against Southampton because he has had such a frustrating time. They struggled a bit to solve his problem and he was out for longer than he anticipated so he will be relieved to be back," O'Neill told the Belfast Telegraph.

"I thought he did well at Southampton after a long spell out. Hopefully now he will get a run. I believe United need him.

"I think what Jonny has is what Louis Van Gaal likes in a defender. He has great mobility, can bring the ball out of defence and is comfortable playing in a back three or a back four. It doesn't faze Jonny to play in any of the positions in a back three which is a good quality to have.

"He's also been waiting for his chance to really impress Van Gaal. In pre-season things were going well and then the injury came at a bad time and now he deserves a bit of good fortune and getting a number of games under his belt."

Facing Southampton as a substitute is one thing. Starting against Liverpool and all the hype that goes with it is something else entirely for a Manchester United player.

O'Neill is certain Sunday's game at Old Trafford is one that Evans will relish.

"I saw him play against Liverpool in the League Cup last year and he had just come back from injury. It was actually Luis Suarez's first match back from a long suspension and Jonny handled it brilliantly," recalled the Northern Ireland boss.

"Having his first start after being out so long in a big game versus Liverpool won't bother Jonny. He deals with that sort of thing very well. He's been around those big games for a long time and remember Manchester United go into that match on the back of good results so their mood should be good.

"They may not be playing as well as they'd like, but they are still winning, whereas Liverpool aren't getting the results they would want."

While United fans are glad to see Evans return to their first XI, Northern Ireland supporters have been debating throughout the Euro campaign if Evans merits a place in central defence when fit, such has been the excellent form of Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley in that area of the pitch.

O'Neill will make that call in March when Northern Ireland play their next qualifier at home to Finland - a crucial tie with regard to qualification.

"Jonny brings the benefit of playing at a massive club and the experience that gives you, plus the quality we know he possesses," says O'Neill.

"He strengthens our squad and that's the bottom line. We complain about not having enough Premier League players and Jonny plays for one of the top teams in the Premier League, so obviously he will help us.

"I'll assess the situation between now and March. There are a lot of variables and one will be where players are at with their clubs when we get to March.

"A big factor will be the players who are playing in their team will probably be better equipped to deal with the important game against Finland rather than those who are out of their club side because it is difficult to come in cold and play an international of that significance.

"I know people are already talking about what we'll do with Jonny available, but I rarely know my team 48 hours before a game so it's premature to be thinking about it now!"

Belfast Telegraph