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O'Neill's men will take a stride closer to fulfilling Russia 2018 dream, insists Jennings

By Graham Luney

Pat Jennings has backed Northern Ireland to take a step closer to the World Cup finals in Russia next year when they take on Norway at Windsor Park tomorrow night.

Norway, now under the guidance of legendary former Sweden and Iceland coach Lars Lagerback, will have a win or bust mentality when they arrive at Windsor Park.

Defeat would leave them seven points behind Northern Ireland in the race for a play-off spot so they are expected to put up a ferocious fight but Michael O'Neill's side are on a roll and confidence is high after their Euro 2016 heroics.

Sitting on seven points in Group C - level with Azerbaijan, their next opponents in June - it certainly feels like a defining period for Northern Ireland.

But legendary keeper Jennings, who participated in the qualifying stages of six World Cups between 1966 and 1986 - making it to the finals in 82 and 86 - feels O'Neill's side can handle the pressure.

The players have banked the big game experience from the Euro 2016 finals and that taste of major tournament action has whetted their appetite for more.

"You are only as good as your last game, but hopefully we can keep going the way we are heading," said Jennings, who was at Windsor Park recently to help open the Irish FA's new education and heritage centre.

"Norway will be tough but we have confidence. Michael is doing a wonderful job and he has a fantastic understanding of his squad now and the players' strengths. He knows exactly what he has at his disposal, and the players always step up to the plate. The big fear is that a key player gets injured but he doesn't seem to have huge worries on that score. Hopefully we can beat Norway and go from there. The boys had a brilliant Euro 2016 campaign and they are playing with real confidence.

"There's been a long gap between the internationals but the team is confident and will fear no one at Windsor Park."

Northern Ireland know that any slip-up could seriously dent their qualification hopes.

And striker Conor Washington is hoping to take advantage of an inexperienced Norwegian defence. Palermo defender Haitam Aleesami is suspended and Brighton centre-back Vegard Forren is injured, while Stefan Strandberg, who made the last squad, is also injured.

"A lot of the lads aren't in the squad from the team that's played," Washington said of Norway. "They might have to have a makeshift defence which makes your eyes light up as a striker.

"This is a big game, they've got a new manager and they're going to want to get on some sort of run to steal our spot. It's really important that at home we put down a marker."

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