Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Stop Ronaldo, and be heroes again boys

All together now: The triumphant Northern Ireland team after last month's stunning victory over Russia at Windsor Park
All together now: The triumphant Northern Ireland team after last month's stunning victory over Russia at Windsor Park

Here we go again then. The Northern Ireland heroes (well, most of them) are back in town ready to slay another giant.

Last month it was Fabio Capello and his Russian team. Tonight Michael O'Neill's men have their sights set on Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese.

Northern Ireland fans are looking forward to it which makes a change from recent matches when, truth be told, the Green and White Army, loyal and all as they are, had a feeling of dread approaching Windsor Park.

It's amazing what a WIN can do.

After so many disappointments, the victory over Russia has breathed new life into the supporters, the players and the manager.

O'Neill's tactics were smart and his team sensational, outplaying Russia all over the park.

Goalscorer on the night with a really clever header, Martin Paterson was a constant threat to the visitors, as was livewire Jamie Ward, with Niall McGinn and Shane Ferguson willing and able to provide from out wide.

In the middle of the park Steve Davis, back to his best, controlled the engine room with Oliver Norwood dovetailing with his skipper perfectly.

Behind them goalkeeper Roy Carroll was as steady as a rock and Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Daniel Lafferty were error free in an ideal example of how a back four can work together as a unit to deny the opposition space, time and opportunities.

We could not have asked for anything better.

Tonight though I fancy with a new look defence we'll need even more because, while O'Neill believes Russia are the best team in Group F, I'm certain that Portugal will provide sterner opposition in Belfast.

This World Cup qualifier is a must win for them to have any chance of finishing ahead of the Russians and qualifying automatically for the 2014 finals in Brazil.

Ronaldo and his pals do not want to be facing an anxious two legged play-off to determine their plans next summer.

I imagine they will come here, unlike the Russians, not underestimating the opposition. If Portuguese minds weren't focused by last October's 1-1 draw with a battling Northern Ireland in Porto, then surely they will have been by the performance and result against Capello's lot.

Portugal have several high class players, though be in no doubt that Ronaldo is the big chief. And if he turns it on, there's every chance that the home side could be swept aside.

It's a lot easier said than done, but Northern Ireland simply have to stop the Real Madrid hero influencing the World Cup qualifier and be as effective in dealing with him as they were in Porto.

Out there when he had the ball, groups of players rushed to close him down and when other Portugal players had the ball O'Neill's side worked like trojans to stop them getting it to their main man.

Northern Ireland have frustrated Ronaldo once in this campaign. Now they must do it again.

They'll have the full force of Windsor Park behind them of course. The old place was rocking for the Russia game.

That sense of togetherness between players and fans returned last month and long may it continue.

Is another victory too much to ask?

The Russia result reaffirmed that ancient theory — with Northern Ireland you just never know.

Go on boys, be heroes again.

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