Northern Ireland face operation stop Ronaldo... part II
Fresh from giving russians a scalping, boss prepares for superstar's revenge
Published 28/08/2013 | 01:30
The countdown to Cristiano Ronaldo's trip to Belfast has begun. He's been here with Portugal before but he's a different animal now.
First time around was in 2005 when he was a 20-year-old Manchester United winger making more waves for his playacting than his actual play.
He was booed that night at Windsor Park when a Warren Feeney goal helped Northern Ireland secure a 1-1 draw in a friendly.
Ronaldo can expect more jeers next month at Windsor in a World Cup qualifier, though eight years on he will arrive as one of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen.
Is Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill fearful? Not a chance. Having outfoxed Fabio Capello to defeat Russia a fortnight ago O'Neill is keen to take another mighty scalp.
And let's not forget he frustrated Ronaldo and Portugal last year, when the Real Madrid superstar won his 100th cap in Porto, with the visitors earning a shock 1-1 draw.
Ronaldo tried all his tricks to win that game but with Aaron Hughes, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart and Ryan McGivern outstanding at the back for Northern Ireland, the former Old Trafford hero was left disappointed.
"If you look back to the game in Porto when Ronaldo won his 100th cap, Luis Figo made a presentation to him before the game and it was set up as his huge night," recalled O'Neill yesterday as he announced his squad for the September 6 showdown with Portugal and the match in Luxembourg four days later.
"There was a big attendance, a great atmosphere and I thought as a team we handled him fantastically well. That's the way to do it. I don't think you can designate one player to look after him.
"Aaron Hughes was up against Ronaldo more than anyone that night with Corry Evans in front of him and they were absolutely outstanding.
"He has license to roam around the pitch and as we did last time it will be up to us as a team to handle that."
O'Neill added: "He tests you in so many ways. You look at his dribbling, shooting, free-kicks and then there's his heading ability and how you have to defend against him from crosses and set pieces.
"At times it isn't so much about stopping him, it's can you limit the supply to him and can you limit the space he has to operate in? That comes through good organisation and hard work. We had that in Porto and we'll need that in Belfast. We'll have to have a very considered approach because if players like him get space they can hurt you.
"When he and Portugal come to Belfast maybe there will be a bit of revenge in the air. It's a massive game for them and it will be a big one for us as well as we want to build on our win against Russia."
That victory for Northern Ireland over Russia, thanks to a brilliant Martin Paterson header, did Portugal a massive favour keeping them top of Group F. They have 14 points compared to 12 for Capello's side who have a game in hand.
Northern Ireland are in fourth on six points chasing down Israel who have 11. Finishing third remains unlikely but O'Neill's team are in a much better place mentally having beaten the Russians.
"The result against Russia will help the players grow as internationals," said O'Neill who himself came of age as a boss at this level winning his first match at the 10th attempt.
He said: "It was lovely to beat a team of Russia's calibre, but I'd be foolhardy to think that going forward it will be a bed of roses. The problems that did exist before could crop up again but we have found a younger, hungrier squad over the last 12 to 18 months and hopefully a squad that will continue to believe in itself, progress and develop."
As for the squad for the forthcoming double header record goalscorer David Healy, linked on Twitter with a move to Linfield which O'Neill scoffed at, remains on the sidelines as he searches for a new club.
But Chris Brunt is back from suspension and Kyle Lafferty and Jonny Evans are also included after missing last month's victory due to injury and illness respectively.
With those three returning it provides genuine competition in the ranks though any of the heroes against Russia who are dropped for the Portugal qualifier can consider themselves extremely unlucky.