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No empty feeling for O'Neill after stalemate at Aviva

By Steven Beacom

Published 05/06/2015

Quiet affair: Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland players walk out for the training game at the Aviva Stadium
Quiet affair: Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland players walk out for the training game at the Aviva Stadium

Michael O'Neill believes his Northern Ireland team are in great shape for the crucial Euro 2016 qualifier against Romania next weekend, following yesterday's behind-closed-doors training match with the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.

The hands across the border fixture ended 0-0 at the Aviva Stadium, with all involved declaring it a worthwhile exercise.

The Republic have a high profile friendly at home to England on Sunday, before they host Scotland tomorrow week in a crunch Euro game, but yesterday's match for Northern Ireland was their last prior to the big Windsor Park top of the table clash with Romania on June 13.

O'Neill's squad won't meet again until Tuesday, but he believes the players can take a short break feeling confident about the eagerly awaited Group F encounter.

In yesterday's match, O'Neill started with his strongest side and was delighted to see the visitors dominate the first half with Oliver Norwood hitting the woodwork and Kyle Lafferty close to scoring twice.

The Republic, having made a host of half-time changes, improved after the interval but neither side could make the breakthrough.

Both managers were pleased with the competitive nature of the game. There was also relief that no injuries were sustained ahead of more important matters next Saturday.

Northern Ireland boss O'Neill said: "The game had really good intensity in it even though it was behind closed doors. The work rate from both sides was good and both teams were competitive. It wasn't as if both teams were just playing the ball around with no edge to it. It was a good exercise.

"I thought in the first half we were excellent and played really, really well. We made changes throughout the second half as we felt players were maybe tiring a little bit against a fresh team because Martin made 10 changes at half-time. We had to be wary of that to make sure we didn't lose a competitive edge.

"We had some good chances in the first half and worked their goalkeeper. Kyle had a couple of chances. Ollie Norwood hit the post for us from a set piece. We created quite a bit going forward.

"We approached it exactly the way we would approach a competitive game, be that training wise, analysis of the opposition and our warm-up. We didn't do anything differently to what we will do ahead of the Romania match."

Asked if it was a surreal experience without any fans inside the stadium, O'Neill said: "It was just like a normal game to be honest.

"That's how I looked at it and the players did the same. I wanted to win the game and in the first half we should have been a couple ahead. The game wasn't played at a pace that left you thinking it was a waste of time.

"It may have been slightly more relaxed because there was no crowd, but it had all the intensity that we wanted."

Four players - Jonny Evans, expected to leave Manchester United in the summer, Gareth McAuley, Stuart Dallas and skipper Steven Davis - played the full 90 minutes.

Brentford's Dallas, impressive in the 1-1 draw with Qatar last Sunday, again shone and is playing his way into the starting line up for Romania, who are one point ahead of second-placed Northern Ireland in the Euro 2016 group table.

O'Neill added: "If it had been a qualification game we would have been delighted with the performance and what we came away with. We would probably have been disappointed that we hadn't gone ahead when on top, but when we came under pressure Gareth and Jonny were brilliant.

"Conor McLaughlin was excellent again and Chris Brunt was good at left-back. He looks comfortable for us in that position and Stuart Dallas, on the back of a fine display against Qatar, also did well.

"There were a lot of plus points for me.

"Bit by bit I feel the squad is evolving and getting stronger and that's what we want." In the absence of any journalists at the game, it was up to O'Neill to select the man of the match. His choice?

"Jonny Evans. Injuries and suspensions have made it a difficult season for him but when he played against Finland in March, I thought he was excellent and he was really good at the Aviva," said O'Neill.

"For me he is one of the top defenders in the Premier League and while his club situation may not be going as well as he would like at this moment, I'm sure it will be resolved. He's a huge influence on our squad and going forward we need him fit and available."

Belfast Telegraph

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