Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

McAuley: let’s get our heads up for Portugal

Gareth McAuley has backed his Northern Ireland team-mates to stand up and be counted in Portugal.

The West Brom skipper misses the key battle through suspension after picking up a costly booking in the disappointing 1-1 home draw with Luxembourg.

The result leaves Michael O’Neill’s men with an even bigger uphill struggle as they aim to avoid being cast adrift in World Cup qualifying Group F.

McAuley proved again in Russia that he’s a formidable figure when Northern Ireland battle in inhospitable surroundings and his commanding presence will be missed in Porto on October 16.

But the towering centre-back is confident his team-mates will stand tall against a formidable attack led by Real Madrid wonder boy Cristiano Ronaldo.

“Portugal are a top European side and have some of the world’s top players but it’s a challenge we can’t hide from,” said the former Coleraine and Crusaders defender. “When they came to Belfast we drew 1-1 and I think we can definitely draw heart from that.

“I now miss the Portugal game through suspension, but we’ve got to move on and forward because it’s going to be a tough game. It’s going to take a disciplined display like the Russian game for us to get a result we need.

“(Cristiano) Ronaldo’s a top player, but when he came here to Belfast he didn’t fancy it because we got tight to him, I think we just need to do the same.

“With progress in the right areas and recovering from that last game, there’s no reason we can’t compete.”

Northern Ireland had reached the dizzy heights of 29th in the Fifa world rankings in 2007 but they have now slumped 100 places to 129th.

Injuries and suspensions were always going to cause havoc with such a small squad and while McAuley sits out the Portugal showdown, Chris Brunt, Kyle Lafferty, Craig Cathcart and Chris Baird are now just one booking away from a suspension.

McAuley’s West Brom team-mate Brunt missed a golden chance to double his side’s lead against Luxembourg and on too many occasions the frontmen were caught offside.

“We dropped off the tempo in the second half and you can’t do that because you get punished and we did,” admitted McAuley. “We knew they were going to get opportunities in the game and unfortunately for us they scored.”