Belfast Telegraph

Finnish the job in Helsinki? Let's do it at Windsor says Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has no intention of playing for two draws and waiting until a trip to Helsinki to qualify for the Euro 2016 finals - he plans to get the job done and dusted on home turf in Belfast at Windsor Park.

And he expects the Northern Ireland supporters to play a huge part in turning the dream into reality.

Naming his squad for next month's Group F qualifiers against Greece at Windsor (October 8) and away to Finland (October 11), there were no surprises from O'Neill.

After all, why change a winning formula that has taken Northern Ireland to within one victory or a couple of draws, in the remaining two Group F fixtures, of qualification for the country's first major finals since the 1986 World Cup?

O'Neill admits that the suspensions of star striker Kyle Lafferty, holding midfielder Chris Baird and right back Conor McLaughlin for the Greek game are a blow, but that won't see him playing safe and settling for a point to keep things ticking over to the final qualifier.

The Northern Ireland boss believes, with the backing of the home fans, there is now enough character and class in the squad to overcome nerves and notable absentees.

"The focus of the players from the start of the campaign has been top drawer and I have no doubts whatever team we put on the pitch in the Greece game they will be ready to play," said a relaxed O'Neill.

"We are very confident of qualifying because we are sitting top of the group with a home game against Greece to come. We need to win one out of two games. If someone had given us that option 12 months ago we would have snapped their hand off. At the very worst we are guaranteed a play-off so if we aren't confident now, we'll never be confident."

The 1-1 draw at home to Hungary earlier this month, with Lafferty equalising in stoppage time when O'Neill's side were down to 10 men after Baird's red card, has given Northern Ireland breathing space.

With the top two nations going to France, Northern Ireland head the Group F table one point ahead of Romania with third placed Hungary four points off the pace. The Magyars have to win their last two games against the Faroe Islands and Greece to have a chance of toppling Northern Ireland or the Romanians.

O'Neill is unmoved by such thoughts. He is focusing on his team insisting that when Greece come to town next week he will look for the victory to seal qualification there and then.

"We have to look to win the game," said O'Neill.

"We're now in the situation where we get two bites at the cherry but we'd be foolhardy not to try and do it at the first attempt and that's the approach that we'll take.

"We'll go out as we have in all the games - particularly all the home games - with a tactical approach to try and win. We know we are more than capable of winning the game."

Once again the manager will look to the Green and White Army to energise his players.

"We saw a great atmosphere in the stadium for the Hungary game. I thought the crowd were magnificent with the way they stayed with the team, especially when we went behind," stated O'Neill.

"With the nature of the Hungary goal it would have been easy for the crowd to turn at that stage, but they didn't. They stuck with the team and with the 10 men, after Chris was sent off, they gave us that energy to get what we got from that game. We will expect the same again.

"The passion, the noise and the togetherness between the team and fans is important. The fans have a huge role to play. We have to make it an intimidating atmosphere for the Greeks and to have the usual tremendous support for our team. With everyone together it can be a special night."

Belfast Telegraph