O'Neill takes positives from Malta draw
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill hopes the benefits of his Malta experiment will be seen when his side meet Russia in next month's World Cup qualifier in Belfast.
O'Neill had hoped to end his winless run as manager in Wednesday night's friendly, but instead chalked up a fifth draw from eight matches in a scoreless stalemate at Ta'qali National Stadium. It was a frustrating night for Northern Ireland, who are without a win in 18 months, but O'Neill hopes the experience will benefit his young players in the serious tests to come.
Alex Bruce and Billy McKay won first caps while Walsall's Will Grigg made his second appearance as a lone striker. "You have to take positives," said O'Neill. "William Grigg's played his second game, Billy McKay came in, Shane Ferguson's now got seven caps, Daniel Lafferty got his third cap, so there's a lot of inexperience in that side."
O'Neill went on: "They'll be better for this experience. As I said to the younger lads in there, Aaron Hughes has got 85 caps but by his own admission he didn't play well in every one. That's something that younger players have to go through.
"They have to come through nights like that. It can be difficult for young players when you play senior international football and you come with the aspirations to always do well. At times the game doesn't allow that."
Grigg was surprisingly chosen to start the game ahead of Scottish Premier League top scorer McKay and in-form Aberdeen frontman Josh Magennis. They both came on in the second half but Tranmere's Adam McGurk, who had hoped to join the debutants, was left on the bench.
Explaining his selection, O'Neill said: "We had one eye on the Russia game. We played with Steven (Davis) further forward similar to how we would envisage being set up against Russia in Belfast, particularly in relation to how we set up against them in Moscow.
"Grigg's got a bit more physical presence than the other two lads, but I thought Billy looked lively when he came on and gave me something to think about for the Russia game. The reality is we probably won't control the level of the game against Russia in the same way, so it's going to be a totally different kind of game.
"It gives me an indication of where the younger players are at. You would maybe like to give them a little bit more time before asking them to step up into a game like that. But the reality of the situation is they won't get that time."
Russia visit Belfast on March 22 with Israel following four days later and, with only three points from four games so far, the two games will make or break Northern Ireland's slim hopes of qualifying for the World Cup finals in Brazil next year.