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Northern Ireland v Norway: Classy Michael O'Neill has turned tide since Norway horror

By Liam Blackburn

The last time Norway visited Windsor Park five years ago, Michael O'Neill was beginning a Northern Ireland tenure which would transform the country's fortunes.

A 3-0 loss to the Norwegians in Belfast on leap year day in 2012 did not prove to be an indication of what was to come during O'Neill's reign, which has so far encompassed passage to the Euro 2016 knockout stages, a record 12-match unbeaten streak and a draw in Portugal.

Northern Ireland were 86th in the world rankings when O'Neill arrived, though they would plummet to new depths before their upturn began.

Five games in and he was still waiting for his first victory, with a draw against Luxembourg in September 2012 dropping them to an all-time low of 129th in the world rankings, and O'Neill fearing his team had forgotten how to win.

"There was a bit of anxiety in our play, and that comes from results," he had admitted.

"The only way to change it is to win games and get results and that's going to take a bit of time."

Even with a draw in Portugal on the night Cristiano Ronaldo earned his 100th cap, they would not experience victory until August 2013 when Martin Paterson's goal against Russia earned them the only victory in O'Neill's first 18 games in charge.

Ranked just inside the top 100 in the world prior to their Euro 2016 qualification campaign, O'Neill's men became the first in history to win a European group despite being seeded in the fifth pot.

By the time they punched their ticket to France, Northern Ireland were up to 29th in the world and they would climb higher still to 25th before the tournament began thanks to a 12-game unbeaten run which was longer than any of the teams at the Euros.

Now O'Neill's team currently stand 35th, 46 spots above a Norwegian outfit who will be the opponents for his 45th game in charge.

O'Neill has guided his nation to 13 wins, 14 draws and 17 defeats in that time, with Northern Ireland having scored 45 times and conceded 52.

Shane Ferguson scored the first goal of the O'Neill era in a 3-3 draw with Finland in the summer of 2012 and he is one of 16 players to have scored for the current international boss, with Kyle Lafferty's 12 strikes leading the way ahead of Gareth McAuley's seven and Steven Davis' five.

Of the XI who O'Neill first picked against Norway, McAuley, Davis, Aaron Hughes, Jonny Evans and Corry Evans are in this squad, and Ferguson would have been too were he not suspended.

And from the starting line-up that O'Neill selected against Russia in his first competitive fixture, only the retired Chris Baird is not in the current squad five years on.

In that way, so little has changed, but as the Norwegians prepare for another encounter in Belfast they know they will meet a team that has since been revolutionised in O'Neill's five years at the helm.

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