Belfast Telegraph

Faroe Islands v Northern Ireland: Michael O'Neill's grand plan is paying off in spades

Euro 2016 qualifying Group F: Friday 4 September, 7.45pm, Torshavn

By Paul Ferguson

Amidst the breathtaking beauty of an archipelago in the middle of the north Atlantic, Michael O'Neill is adamant Northern Ireland are not a one-year wonder.

The Green and White Army have stunned European football with their progression in Group F, lying second, one point behind leaders Romania after victories over Hungary, the Faroes Islands, Greece and Finland.

Tonight when they clash with fellow shock troopers the Faroes in Torshavn, they have the opportunity to take another step towards the promised land - the Euro 2016 finals in France next year. By Monday night, if results go their way, they may have even qualified.

It's an incredible turnaround from a 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign that ended with Northern Ireland in fifth place in the group, after recording defeats to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.

But O'Neill says Northern Ireland's sensational form in these qualifiers is down to three years of hard graft, including in those disastrous World Cup games.

"People have talked a lot about this campaign but it has taken three years to get into this position, not 12 months," admitted O'Neill (pictured).

"In the disappointment of the World Cup campaign we saw the potential in this squad but also the Achilles' heel. We identified that and you are now seeing the evidence of that work in these qualifiers."

At Windsor Park in October, Northern Ireland dominated against the Faroes but only recorded a 2-0 victory. There were glimpses, though, that the Faroese could penetrate the Northern Ireland defence.

O'Neill expects the minnows, under former Denmark Euro 1992 winning captain Lars Olsen, to take the game to his side.

"I don't think the Faroes will play defensively," said O'Neill. "Lars Olsen has been very consistent in how he's played all the games in qualifying. They are a brave team who usually play a 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1 and I expect them to play similarly and press us high up the pitch.

"Their biggest assets are their work-rate, spirit and the intensity in their game. That's the message we have hammered home to our players this week - we can't be out-worked but we have to match it and believe our superior quality will shine through.

"Having watched their games here against Greece and Hungary, I don't envisage that this will be a very tactical game if I'm being honest. Both teams will try to win and I think it will be fairly open."

After recovering from a knee medial ligament injury, Norwich City striker Kyle Lafferty is fit to play, but has had no game time. He will start, but may not play 90 minutes.

Jonny Evans has looked sharp in training, but again, the new West Brom defender hasn't seen competitive action this season while Chris Brunt is fit to start after picking up a knock with the Baggies.

O'Neill said: "Kyle has looked fine. He's trained since Monday, he's had no issues. He's completed every session that we've done. He's really keen to play.

"Kyle's had a frustrating time at Norwich, not only since pre-season, he's had a frustrating time in the second half of last season as well when he had to go out on loan.

"He's keen to make a big contribution and he knows the significance of these games. He's keen to add to the five goals he's had in the tournament to date. He likes the fact that he's up there with the top goalscorers in Europe, he's enjoying that, he's reminded me of that on several occasions!

"We know what he'll give to the team. We know he'll give a tremendous work-rate and effort up front, regardless if he scores or not. How long he'll last or how fit he'll be remains to be seen. Certainly we know we'll get every last drop out of him."

Tonight's match will be played on a synthetic pitch - Northern Ireland's first ever competitive action on such a surface.

But O'Neill, who conducted training at Bangor Football Club's 3G pitch this week before flying out to Torshavn, insists if Northern Ireland fail to record a positive result tonight, he will not be using the playing surface as an excuse.

O'Neill conceded: "I've no issues with the pitch. I think the pitch is fine. Simple as that. The team won't have any issues with the pitch. We've trained at Bangor on a very similar surface.

"In terms of the make-up of our squad, most of the players who play outside the Premier League are either training on or playing on artificial pitches quite a bit. The lads in Scotland train and play on it on a regular basis. It's not alien to us.

"It's not a concern for me at all. Certainly, if the result doesn't go our way, it won't be because of the pitch."

PROBABLE NORTHERN IRELAND STARTING XI AGAINST FAROES: Carroll, C McLaughlin, Brunt, J Evans, McAuley, Baird, Davis, Norwood, Dallas, McGinn, K Lafferty.

Belfast Telegraph