Michael O’Neill embarks on a new World Cup campaign warning Northern Ireland fans that their dream of qualifying for the 2014 finals in Brazil is just that.
The reality check from manager O’Neill is aimed at lifting the weight of unreasonable expectation from his side ahead of their tough opening qualifier against Fabio Capello’s Russia in Moscow next Friday.
O’Neill is able to include Manchester United defender Jonny Evans, on the way back from an ankle operation, and comeback former skipper Aaron Hughes for that game and the visit of group minnows Luxembourg to Windsor Park the following Tuesday.
But he insists his squad is still a long way off gatecrashing the Rio de Janiero carnival with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, Israel and Azerbaijan also in the group.
“At this moment in time everyone talks about qualification and Brazil,” said O’Neill.
“That’s a dream that I have as a manager and I am sure the players and fans have as well.
“That dream is still there but we haven’t kicked a ball yet.
“To finish above Portugal or Russia in the group is going to be a massive challenge.”
By the time the tournament in Brazil comes around it will be 28 years since Northern Ireland last played before a global audience — hence O’Neill’s note of caution.
“We have come out in pot four so we are expected to finish in fourth place,” said O’Neill.
“If we finish above that I think it will be a significant step forward in our progress and if we finish below that we would have to say we are disappointed with that.
“Finishing higher than fourth would have to be deemed as a successful campaign.
“I think any international manager would tell you that if you finish higher than where you are seeded, it’s an indication that you are going in the right direction and that’s what we are aiming to do.”