Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill wants crack at England, Germany or Spain in World Cup

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill would love to see one of Europe's big hitters come to Windsor Park in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.

The draw takes place in Russia tomorrow, and while O'Neill won't be in St Petersburg to be welcomed by President Vladimir Putin like many other national team bosses and officials, he will be watching from afar to see who Kyle Lafferty, Jonny Evans and co will be taking on from September next year.

Northern Ireland are in pot three for the draw which shows how far the side have moved up the Fifa rankings under O'Neill in the past two years. They were in pot five for the Euro 2016 group draw.

The higher ranked you are the more comfortable the draw can be, though it doesn't always work out that way.

Take the Euro 2016 draw for example. O'Neill could not have hand-picked it better himself with Northern Ireland paired with Romania, Greece, Hungary, Finland and the Faroe Islands.

Northern Ireland currently lie second in that group and with just four games left are well placed to reach next year's finals.

While the Euro draw gave O'Neill's team the chance to make waves, the Northern Ireland boss appreciates there was not much glamour for the fans.

In the previous World Cup campaign, Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and Fabio Capello's Russia came to Belfast. O'Neill is looking for even grander European superpowers this time and he could get his wish with world champions Germany, Holland, England, Spain, Italy and France potential opponents.

"I would like a bit of glamour for us and the fans in the draw," said O'Neill.

"I wouldn't mind a Spain, Italy, England or Germany in our group. I wouldn't mind that at all especially with the new stadium at Windsor Park being finished by then. It would be great for us to get that type of game in Belfast again.

"I really would like a match of that nature to look forward to at Windsor. In the last World Cup campaign we had Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo which was a big one and we also had Russia, who were made more attractive to the fans because Fabio Capello was their manager then.

"Regardless of who we get I'm sure it will be a tough group, especially given that only the top two teams in the group qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.

"It has been good for us to get up to pot three, though I'm not so sure what difference it makes to the draw because you could easily draw a tough team from pot four and a tricky one from pot five so we will have to wait and see."

In tomorrow's group draw, 52 of Europe's 53 teams will be involved, with the only exception being Russia who qualify automatically as hosts.

The 52 teams will be put into seven groups of six teams and two groups of five teams according to the Fifa World Rankings of July 2015, with each team playing each other home and away between September 4, 2016 and October 10, 2017.

Uefa have requested that England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland be drawn into a group containing six teams. European football's governing body will make arrangements for the teams drawn into the two groups of five teams to organise friendly matches for the 10 countries concerned, as well as for Russia.

The fixture dates for the World Cup qualifiers will be released on Sunday.

Draw pots

Pot 1: Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Romania, England, Wales, Portugal, Spain, Croatia

Pot 2: Italy, Slovakia, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, France, Iceland, Denmark, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Pot 3: Poland, Ukraine, Scotland, Hungary, Sweden, Albania, Northern Ireland, Serbia, Greece

Pot 4: Turkey, Slovenia, Israel, Republic of Ireland, Norway, Bulgaria, Faroe Islands, Montenegro, Estonia

Pot 5: Cyprus, Latvia, Armenia, Finland, Belarus, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Moldova

Pot 6: Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Georgia, Malta, San Marino, Andorra

Belfast Telegraph