Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill wants Northern Ireland to seize early momentum in World Cup campaign to qualify for back-to-back finals

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill is hoping his Northern Ireland side will start their World Cup campaign in the same positive manner that they kicked off their successful Euro 2016 qualifying series.

After a memorable experience at the Euro finals in France, O'Neill is refreshed and ready to go again for Northern Ireland having enjoyed holiday time with his family and cheered Carl Frampton to victory in his epic World title fight against Leo Santa Cruz in New York.

Two years ago, O'Neill's men travelled to Hungary and won 2-1 in their opening Euro qualifier. That morale-boosting result provided momentum that took them all the way to France.

Next week O'Neill will name his squad for the first match in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers away to the Czech Republic on September 4.

Like they did before the Euro finals, O'Neill and his players will have a week-long training camp in Austria before travelling to Prague for the showdown with the Czechs, who are expected to fight it out with Northern Ireland and Norway for the runners-up spot in the group behind favourites and World champions Germany.

For the World Cup, only the group winners automatically qualify with the top eight second-placed teams from nine groups involved in a play-off.

Eagerly awaiting the chance to take Northern Ireland to two tournaments in a row for the first time in the nation's history, O'Neill said: "We will be ready and in good shape.

"We spoke with some of the senior players and they thought it was a good idea to go to Austria, having had a great week there previously. We can get a lot of work done there and then it is a short journey into Prague.

"Hopefully in this campaign our fans will see a team that is very, very competitive, just as it has been for the last two to three years.

"The difficulty is that with the World Cup only the top team automatically qualifies and how many times have Germany not won their qualification group, so they will obviously be big favourites to qualify.

"We are in a tough group and we have a tough opening game but we will do everything to give ourselves the best chance possible.

"We have to try and start the campaign in a similar way to how we started qualification for France."

O'Neill's squad will largely be the same, bar a few veteran performers who may decide to retire from international football.

The Northern Ireland boss attended Wigan's 3-0 Championship win over Blackburn on Saturday, when Will Grigg netted, and was also at Manchester City's 2-1 home success over Sunderland, when Paddy McNair scored an unfortunate own goal on his debut for the visitors.

McNair, previously at Manchester United, is one of a number of Northern Ireland players to move in the summer. Michael McGovern has joined Norwich, Oliver Norwood is now at Brighton, Josh Magennis has signed for Charlton while Aaron Hughes has made a surprise switch to Indian Super League side Kerala Blasters.

O'Neill added: "I think it is a good thing that several players have made moves. They have moved because they are in a better position and they should be on a high. The exposure at the Euros brought them to the attention of the clubs who have either bought them or signed them."

Belfast Telegraph


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