Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill challenges team to end campaign on high note

Michael O'Neill has boldly challenged his Northern Ireland players to snatch third place in their World Cup qualifying group.

Less than a month after those same players were responsible for arguably the worst result in the country's football history, O'Neill is not just expecting a response when they face Azerbaijan next Friday – he is demanding one.

And a win in Baku could then set up a clash in Tel Aviv four days later when a Northern Ireland win would see them pip Israel to third place.

O'Neill has always pleaded for the expectation level surrounding his squad to be realistic.

Now though, after the embarrassment of losing to Luxembourg, he wants payback for the fans, about 40 of whom will travel to Azerbaijan, by upping the ante and asking for two away wins – even though Northern Ireland haven't won away from home twice in a campaign since the qualifying series for Euro '96.

"One thing that the Luxembourg game does prove is that when we're not at our maximum, irrespective of the perception of the quality of the opposition, we're going to have a tough game," said O'Neill.

"I envisage two tough games in Azerbaijan and Israel.

"The Azerbaijan one, coming first, is the key one in many ways because if we can get three points there then we could realistically be going into the Israel game with the possibility of playing for third spot in the group, so that's an incentive in itself.

"We don't want to lose the two games and finish bottom of the group.

"If we can go and win in Azerbaijan, we could potentially finish third and that's what our aim has to be."

It seems that after seeing his team hit the heights by not only beating Russia 1-0, but outperforming Fabio Capello's team, and then showing great steel and resilience to come from 1-0 down against Portugal before losing 4-2 to a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired team with just nine men, O'Neill is handing the responsibility for the 3-2 loss in Luxembourg over to those who were on the pitch.

It's a case of 'you got yourselves into this mess, now you've got to get yourselves out of it.'

O'Neill has already discussed the match in a meeting with his captain Steven Davis (pictured) and the rest of the players can expect to hear about it when they meet up next week.

And the big message will be that they learn a lesson that many of their predecessors didn't.

"The players are aware that they let themselves down and they'll be keen to make sure they address that in these two games," said O'Neill.

The players know it. They knew after the game.

"I had a meeting with Steven Davis down at Southampton last week and we discussed a lot of aspect of that.

"I look back at this campaign and we have led in five of the eight games and ultimately we haven't got the results.

"We have to make sure that we're capitalising on the opportunities that we have and when we get into a strong position.

"We should have learned from the Luxembourg game after taking the lead because that should have been the incentive to go on and lift the level of our game because we hadn't started well.

"They have to learn because this group of players hasn't won a lot of games at international level, so they have to find a way to start doing that.

"If I get the same performance again I won't be too happy."

Aaron Hughes is out of both games after suffering a recurrence of the groin injury that caused him to miss the matches against Portugal and Luxembourg.

There are fears that the former captain may now retire from international football after O'Neill persuaded him to reverse his decision to quit two years ago.

Meanwhile, former international Keith Gillespie has retired from the game altogether.

He had planned to stop playing at the end of the League of Ireland season, but he will miss Longford Town's final games due to a knee injury.

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