Belfast Telegraph

Winning ugly suits O’Neill: Northern Ireland v Portugal

Another upset would be beautiful for Windsor boss

BY STEVEN BEACOM

Earlier this week Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley tweeted: "I think the election of David Martin is a worrying development for Northern Irish football."

It seems everyone is having their say on the subject, from fans to players, amid concerns that Martin's return to the Irish FA may see the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure withdraw the £25million for the re-development of Windsor Park.

It was the turn of Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill yesterday.

Initially when a question about Martin cropped up at his press conference, O'Neill asked: "Can he play at left-back?"

It was a quick witted reference to all his injuries at the back ahead of tonight's World Cup qualifier against Portugal.

If his players are as razor sharp in dealing with the questions posed by the Portuguese this evening, we could be in for another glorious occasion at Windsor.

Later in more serious mode on the subject of the improvements to the stadium, O'Neill stated: "There are a lot of people who have done a lot of work to get the stadium project to its current position. It must progress and hopefully common sense will prevail."

If it does progress, this evening's match will be the last competitive international played at Windsor in its present state, before the builders move in.

O'Neill admitted it would be fantastic to say farewell to the old place in style.

The Northern Ireland manager would prefer of course to focus on football rather than IFA politics. After all, coming up with plans to beat Portugal minus three quarters of the defence that overcame Russia last month is difficult enough without other issues clouding his mind.

So, how will he beat Portugal and contain a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who will arrive at Windsor as the second most expensive player in the world following Gareth Bale's £85million move from Spurs to Real Madrid?

He didn't man mark Ronaldo when Northern Ireland secured a battling 1-1 draw in Porto in October and it will be a case of same again.

"Where Ronaldo plays on the pitch you can't designate anyone to take care of him, it would disrupt the shape of our team too much," said O'Neill.

"It's about the work rate of the team and using that to make it as difficult as possible for him to do what he's capable of doing. We must also remember that while he is a great player Portugal have many other good players."

Aaron Hughes (injured), Craig Cathcart (injured) and Daniel Lafferty (suspended) are missing from the defence that comfortably saw off the threat of Fabio Capello's Russians. Ryan McGivern, who played so well at left back in Porto, is also out with a knee problem.

No wonder O'Neill is so pleased to have Manchester United's Jonny Evans available again.

"It was a blow losing him to illness in the way we did before Russia, though credit to Craig for playing the way he did and Gareth McAuley who was outstanding on the night. Having Jonny available again is a huge boost. He has the experience of these big nights and big games and it is important to have him back in the squad."

The last time Portugal were in Belfast in 2005 the score was 1-1 in a friendly, though visiting manager Luiz Felipe Scolari was far from impressed with what he saw as the home side's over physical approach and long ball tactics.

O'Neill thinks that way of playing is outdated, but at the same time he'll be happy to win ugly in a match which for Northern Ireland is about momentum and for Portugal is key to their hopes of topping Group F and qualifying for the World Cup finals.

"I don't want a beautiful game of football, that's not how we are going to excel.

"They love to hit on the counter attack and when they get the opportunity they are all gifted players so it is important we make it difficult for them.

"That's what happened against Russia and that's what we aim to do against Portugal," said O'Neill, who praised the influence of Steven Davis in the victory over Russia and will need another big performance from the captain tonight.

Kyle Lafferty also has the ability to hurt the Portuguese and as Martin Paterson and Jamie Ward illustrated last time out they can make their mark at this level.

The Windsor Park crowd have been doing that for years.

O'Neill added: "There will be 12,000 in the stadium. The crowd in Portugal was 55,000 but Windsor will be louder. That is immense in terms of what it gives to the team.

"The fans will be great and what I want from my team is a high work rate, energy and quality when they get the chance to play.

"We need to have a real zip about us and hopefully that will take us to another great result."

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