Belfast Telegraph

Let's see how Northern Ireland cope with being big fish in Luxembourg

By Steven Beacom

The good news is that Northern Ireland won't have the finishing power of the great Cristiano Ronaldo to deal with it tonight.

And the bad news? Well, truth be told there's not much of that in an upbeat camp which believes, after their last two performances against Russia and Portugal, that a corner has been turned and from here on in they are going forward under Michael O'Neill.

Disappointed with Friday night's 4-2 defeat to the Portuguese and frustrated by the needless red cards picked up by Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty, which changed the course of the World Cup qualifier, the Northern Ireland players have quickly re-grouped and are confident that they can end the campaign on a high.

Starting with a win over Luxembourg this evening.

Anything else would be unacceptable, such as the 1-1 draw between the sides a year ago at Windsor Park.

Back then Northern Ireland took an early lead through Dean Shiels and looked set to deliver a first victory as boss for O'Neill, but in the second half the home team became disjointed and disorganised allowing the underdogs to grow in confidence. The equaliser with four minutes left, which deflected in off Ryan McGivern, was fortunate, but they deserved it. Had there been more time left Luxembourg, sensing blood, would have gone on to win!

It was O'Neill's first competitive match in Belfast and rather than a crowning moment for the manager it became a complete embarrassment.

It's not often Northern Ireland play nations that are smaller in size and numbers, so you have to take advantage when the opportunity comes along.

Given that one excuse trotted out down the years for poor results has been "limited numbers to choose from" we are overflowing with options compared to Luxembourg, which has a population of just 540,000 and many of them declare themselves as other nationalities.

For instance there is a large Portuguese community here, who were delighted to see that Ronaldo hat-trick on Friday at Windsor.

Make no mistake about it, entering this fixture O'Neill's side are the big fish with Luxembourg the minnows.

The Luxembourg squad contains some full-time players in various lower leagues around Europe, but it consists mostly of part-timers, whose main occupation is not football. We are in butcher, baker, candlestick maker territory here.

They are even lower than us in Fifa's world rankings – 140 to 109 for O'Neill's side which will include proven Premier League stars like Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Steve Davis. Surely there can only be one outcome this time.

The last occasion Northern Ireland were here in 2000 is memorable for two reasons.

It was Sammy McIlroy's debut as boss and when the original flight out from London was cancelled there was the bewildering scene of our 1982 and 1986 World Cup hero apoplectic with rage trying to sort out the unsatisfactory situation with airline officials as his new players looked on bemused.

The team eventually made the trip landing several hours later than schedule, but it didn't seem to bother David Healy in his first international, scoring twice in a comfortable 3-1 friendly win.

Despite injury and suspension ruling regulars out, that's the type of scoreline we are looking for 13 years on.

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