Belfast Telegraph

Romania v Northern Ireland: Michael O'Neill hits back at Romania coach's 'mind games' ahead of Euro 2016 qualifier

O'Neill hits back at canny Romania coach, telling him to keep 'politics' out of football

By Paul Ferguson

Michael O'Neill isn't interested in getting into the politics side of football.

After going sightseeing in Bucharest yesterday, the Northern Ireland manager is convinced the Romanian manager Anghel Iordanescu is trying to play mind games ahead of tonight's Euro qualifier at Arena Nationala - and he isn't falling for it.

O'Neill made his way to famous old Steaua Bucharest stadium and marvelled over the history of the club, the magnificent players who wore their red and blue shirt with pride and remembered how Anghel Iordanescu oversaw their greatest period when they were crowned European Champions after beating Barcelona in the 1986 final and then lost out to AC Milan three years later in the decider.

He knows how good a coach Iordanescu is and what he can achieve with quality players.

So when Iordanescu, a former Senator and Army General, revealed yesterday that he was struggling to sleep at night because he was worried about his team selection against an excellent Northern Ireland side, O'Neill just gave a wry smile.

It seems an experienced manager is using some of the oldest tricks in the book to try to lull a team into a false sense of security.

O'Neill said: "I slept well last night. I think Mr Iordanescu is a very experienced coach. I would expect he knows his team, I don't expect any surprises in the Romanian team.

"Romania are known for attacking football and we expect to come under a lot of pressure in the game. We are well equipped to deal with that.

"As regards the coaching situation I know a lot has been said about us being the favourites, but I also believe Mr Iordanescu was previously a politician, so spoke like a true politician and has used his experience in terms of how he has spoken about us.

"I know he has also been very successful in the past, perhaps more successful than he has been as a politician.

"The players will respond to the new head coach, he is a legend in Romanian football, and I don't think the change will affect the performance in any way."

Northern Ireland go into tonight's match without captain Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Shane Ferguson, Jamie Ward and Ryan McLaughlin - all of whom are injured.

O'Neill is likely to bring in Chris Brunt, Sammy Clingan and Niall McGinn.

Northern Ireland, having beaten Hungary, the Faroe Islands and Greece in their opening three games of this 2016 Euro campaign, top Group F on nine points - two points ahead of second placed Romania.

It's been a magical start for O'Neill and his men, especially considering the Northern Ireland manager set down a target of eight points heading into the long break before next March's game against Finland.

Victory is very much on O'Neill's min, but he says if his team does lose for the first time in the competition, it will not derail his plans to take his country to their first ever European Championships.

"This game's come at a good time for us in the sense that we already have two results away from home, tough games in Hungary and Greece," admits O'Neill.

"When I look at the group we would have been extremely happy to have nine points after four games so the fact we have that already is fantastic for this group of players and testament to the work they've put in.

"This game for us is almost like a bonus game. We have the opportunity to add points, but I don't think if we were to lose the game it would be a huge setback.

"If we add to our nine points it would be a massive step going forward."

Romania have a solid foundation to their squad, built around the players who perform for Steaua.

They will play in front of 30,000 partisan supporters tonight with roof of the stadium closed.

Their main, striker Bogdan Stancu, is lethal and must be kept on a short leash tonight by Northern Ireland's defence.

O'Neill has analysed Romania at length and even though they are missing five key players, the former Newcastle United and Dundee United midfielder expects to face a rougher ride in Bucharest than Athens.

"We probably got Greece at a good time. They came off the back off the World Cup. They had a difficult start, losing to Romania behind closed doors and I think Romania got a boost from that," added O'Neill.

"You only have to look back to last year when Romania only missed out in a play-off with Greece for the World Cup. That disappointment will probably act as a real spur for them in this campaign.

"I expect this game to be extremely difficult. I think we'll see a team that will respond to a white hot atmosphere in the stadium and we'll have to deal with that, but these are games that I look forward to now."

Belfast Telegraph