Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill's men hit a six-year high in Fifa rankings as Greece tie looms

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland will enter next week's crunch Euro 2016 qualifier at home to Greece on a six-year high after moving up to number 35 in Fifa's rankings.

The latest ratings mean that Michael O'Neill's side have jumped a massive 94 places in the past three years, from an all-time low of 129 in September 2012, illustrating the nation's remarkable transformation from no-hopers to a team on the verge of playing in a major tournament.

Much maligned they may be, and with some reason, but the Fifa rankings are considered important because they determine the seedings for qualifying groups.

Mind you, that hasn't mattered much to Northern Ireland in the current Euro 2016 campaign, which O'Neill's men started as a pot five side - out of six.

Right now they are top of the Group F table knowing victory over Greece will see them go to next year's finals in France.

In the Fifa rankings, Northern Ireland lead Scotland, who are 40th, and are well ahead of Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland in 54th.

Wales, like Northern Ireland poised for a place at Euro 2016, have reached an all-time high of eighth with England in 10th. Argentina are first just ahead of Germany, who beat them in last year's World Cup final.

Northern Ireland's highest ranking was back in 2007, thanks to David Healy's goalscoring heroics taking the team to 27th.

Should O'Neill's side continue to shine as they have done in the past year, there is every chance that they could go higher.

The Northern Ireland boss knows he faces an anxious weekend, hoping that none of his players for next Thursday's Windsor Park showdown against Greece or the trip to Finland a few days later are injured playing for their clubs.

O'Neill is already without the suspended Kyle Lafferty, Chris Baird and Conor McLaughlin for the Greek encounter on October 8.

He is hoping that Gareth McAuley, who has a calf problem, will play for WBA against Crystal Palace tomorrow and says he is 'optimistic' the influential defender will be fit and available for the forthcoming double-header.

One man not in O'Neill's thoughts for the clashes with Greece and Finland is Martin Paterson, though that doesn't mean the new Blackpool striker is out of the manager's plans altogether.

Paterson earned O'Neill his first win as international boss - at the 10th attempt - with the only goal against Fabio Capello's Russia at Windsor in the World Cup 2014 qualifiers.

Earlier this year, Paterson joined Orlando City in the MLS but after a frustrating spell with injury recently returned to English football with Blackpool.

O'Neill said: "Martin has to rebuild his career. He has basically been a year out of playing first-team football. Martin is a player I speak to and keep an eye on. Hopefully he can get going again."

Belfast Telegraph