Belfast Telegraph

Hughes believes O'Neill can make World Cup finals dream a reality

By Stuart McKinley

Northern Ireland's win over Russia last month has given Aaron Hughes renewed belief that the dream of qualification for a World Cup or European Championships can become a reality.

Manager Michael O'Neill talked the former international captain out of retirement when he took the job, with the opportunity to challenge for a place in next summer's global showpiece in Brazil the motivation.

Realistically, having won just once in six games, Northern Ireland are already out of the running in Group F, but that single victory, which came against Fabio Capello's team just three weeks ago, was enough to convince Hughes that the long wait to reach a major finals that goes back to Mexico 1986 can come to an end in the near future.

"We need to just keep building and the Russia game, that's the level of performance that we need to hit in every game," said Hughes.

"If we keep playing like that – maybe not this campaign, although we can have a say in it and go right to the end – but in the future if we can perform like that it's not inconceivable that we can get to a finals at some stage.

"It's a young squad that Michael is building; take myself and one or two others out of it.

"We add the experience to it, but there are a lot of young legs out there, lads with 10 or 12 years ahead of them.

"To come and play as well as they did against world class players like the did against Russia was a big statement. They showed their character, they also showed their quality."

O'Neill assembled his players yesterday for Friday night's qualifier against Portugal at Windsor Park and after beating Russia – the manager's first win in 10 attempts – there is a feelgood factor surrounding the squad again.

As with any win, the knock-on effect is that the expectation level rises in the aftermath.

What Northern Ireland fans must remember is that one of the top players in world football, Cristiano Ronaldo, will captain the Portuguese team, although the players will want to add him to the list of big names that have left Belfast beaten in recent times.

"We weren't lacking in confidence previously, but the win over Russia will give us a real boost," said Hughes.

"It's great that we have another game so quickly, because it doesn't usually happen like that.

"We can bounce off the back of the Russia game and hopefully put in another performance, that's all we can ask.

"If we want a performance we have to work hard and a lot of the things you saw against Portugal is what we've worked on in training.

"A lot of the work that we do in training, we have seen it in games that we've played already, but we maybe just didn't get the rub of the green.

"Any luck we got against Russia we deserved it and we finally got the win.

"It was a big reward for a lot of hard work over the last 18 months."

O'Neill faces a selection dilemma with Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty now available after missing the win against the Russians.

Evans is almost certain to come into the team after his former Manchester United colleague Craig Cathcart, who stood out against Russia, has been forced to withdraw because of a knee injury and he will also miss next week's trip to Luxembourg.

Aberdeen's Josh Magennis, who can play in a number of positions, has been added to the squad, with Rory McKeown of Kilmarnock promoted from the under-21s to make his first appearance in the senior panel.

O'Neill will be forced into one other change, with Burnley left-back Daniel Lafferty ruled out by a suspension.

His place in the team is expected to go to Hibernian defender Ryan McGivern.

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