Belfast Telegraph

Plans under way to ensure Ronaldo is on receiving end of next Windsor Park upset

By Sinead Haughey

Michael O’Neill is already counting down the days to Portugal’s trip to Belfast next month as he believes that his Northern Ireland team can follow up their win over Russia by toppling Cristiano Ronaldo and co.

 

Friday September 6 is the date that the Real Madrid star will run out at Windsor Park and he will face a team with renewed confidence and an injection of belief after the 1-0 win over the Russians.

And after failing to beat Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and Israel in previous home games, O’Neill believes that his team’s mindset changes when they are faced with higher quality opposition — and that is borne out by Wednesday night’s win and the 1-1 draw in Portugal last October.

“Maybe when the level of expectation is slightly higher, in terms of getting a result, it has tripped us up a bit,” said O’Neill.

“Portugal are another world-class team, with world class players and the likes of Ronaldo coming here, it's a great chance for us.

“Results like we got in beating Russia are invaluable in terms of giving the the players the belief they can play at the top level.”

O’Neill can expected to face one or two selection dilemmas when he sits down to pick his team to face the Portuguese.

Chris Brunt is now free from suspension, while Jonny Evans and Kyle Lafferty are guaranteed places in the squad when they aren’t affected by illness or injury.

Sammy Clingan may also be fit by the start of next month and the unattached trio of Chris Baird, Paddy McCourt and David Healy will all hope to have joined new clubs by then.

O’Neill was faced with a similar situation after the 1-1 draw in Por

tugal last October — a game that Gareth McAuley, Brunt and Shane Ferguson missed — but suddenly that provides massive competition for places in all areas of the pitch.

And that’s a luxury that virtually no Northern Ireland manager has had in the past.

“I think maybe that's the important thing,” said O’Neill.

“In the past period I don't think we've had enough pressure put on those experienced players in terms of staying in the team and keeping the jersey.

“The onus now is on players like Oliver Norwood, Shane Ferguson, Daniel Lafferty and Martin Paterson. Instead of people thinking they have the right to play you need to be picking from a healthier base.”

After taking 10 games to record his first win as Northern Ireland boss O’Neill knows that highs like the draw in Portugal and beating Russia can be quickly followed by a result that will bring him and his players back to earth with a bump.

The improvement in performances as well as the confidence boost from winning matches will, hopefully ensure that the rollercoaster doesn’t take an unexpected sharp dip in the near future.

“I've been in the game long enough to not get carried away and say it is a new day, but I know what we have in this squad,” said O’Neill.

“Hopefully you're seeing the the shape of a team that can continue to develop.

“They can compete and show quality and they showed that really well in possession and defended exceptionally well.

“Every time the team comes together we add another layer of preparation.

“At times the training maybe isn’t as enjoyable as the players would like, but I think they see the benefit of it.”

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