Belfast Telegraph

We're pointing in right direction: Dallas

Northern Ireland ace reveals players are on course to hit pre-qualifying target as they aim for Russia

By Paul Ferguson

Stuart Dallas has revealed the Northern Ireland players always believed they would be a major force in this World Cup qualifying campaign.

While most observers were convinced the pinnacle for this current crop was going to be reaching Euro 2016, Dallas concedes that prior to this qualifying series starting last September the players came together and agreed on a points target which they believed was attainable and gave them a great chance of reaching Russia in 2018.

Now, with Northern Ireland in second place in Group C on seven points and with a crucial home match on Sunday against Norway - before which a minute's applause will be held for tragic Derry City captain Ryan McBride - Dallas insists Michael O'Neill's men are where they want to be in the qualification process.

"It has been a good start for us, I think we're on course for what we set out to achieve," said Dallas, who is returning to the set-up after missing the last two World Cup qualifiers against Germany and Azerbaijan through injury.

"We set ourselves a points target and we are on course. Nothing has changed. It has been a long time since the last game in November but the boys are back, you can see everyone is champing at the bit and ready to go. Everyone is looking forward to Sunday."

In conversation, Coagh's favourite son has always been refreshingly open, honest, frank and engaging. Yet when it comes to the points target the players set themselves, Dallas is decidedly coy.

"That stays within the group," stated the 25-year-old. "But first and foremost you have to win your home games and take it from there. People are expecting us to win against Norway, however it will be a tough game, we are under no illusions and we'll get a good week behind us and prepare the right way."

Norway, who haven't lost to Northern Ireland since 1975 and defeated the men in green 3-0 in O'Neill's first game in charge in 2012, will be something of an enigma on Sunday at Windsor Park.

Having made a poor start to the campaign, losing three games and only winning once against little San Marino, the Norwegians opted to replace their coach and brought in experienced former Sweden and Iceland supremo Lars Lagerback.

This will be his first game in charge and it's unknown at this stage how he will set his side up - especially considering Norway, due to retirement and suspensions, will be putting out a much-changed side.

Dallas, set to win his 20th cap on Sunday, said: "They have a new manager and I think they are missing six players who played in their last game, so they have new players who will have a point to prove which may make it that bit tougher, but we will prepare the way we always do and go into the game expecting to get the three points.

"Anybody coming to Windsor knows it's not an easy place to come to and it's somewhere we have been strong over recent years. We have shown we can go away to teams and pick up valuable points as well but you have to win your home games.

"I think that's the same no matter what level you're playing at, whether it's club football or international, you have got to win games and anything you get away is a bonus."

Windsor Park on Sunday for the hugely important clash will once again be a sell-out and the Northern Ireland fans, who haven't watched a competitive defeat at home for over three and a half years, will expect their heroes to deliver.

It doesn't matter that the Norwegians, despite their struggles, can still be a force, Dallas and his team-mates are aware that following the Euros last summer expectation is at an all-time high.

Dallas welcomes the extra pressure. He added: "We know how good we are and what we expect of ourselves. We're winning games and the success we had last summer means the fans' expectations have probably risen. But we know how good we are and we know what we want to achieve and last year gave us a taste of that.

"It shows how far we have come that we are going into games like this believing we can win rather than a few years ago saying 'we'll do well to get a point here'. The management and staff have to take credit for that.

"Any team who comes to Windsor, no matter who, we will give a good account of ourselves against them - we won't just roll over.

"We have a target and after the last campaign, we know what we have to do to get there."

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