Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Latvia: Put your shirt on Michael O'Neill's men to make more strides

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill was talking about the importance of the Northern Ireland shirt. No, the manager had not entered the big debate about the Irish FA's controversial new green, white and blue home top or the more warmly received - and plainer - away one.

He will let everyone else in the country talk about that.

On the eve of tonight's friendly against Latvia at Windsor Park, O'Neill was only interested in who would be wearing the latest shirts, not their colouring or design.

The 46-year-old, one month on from making history by guiding Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals, wants to use the five build up games for next year's tournament to work on different tactics, especially after he knows who his group opponents are next month, and to see how flexible his team can be.

But if you think the friendlies before France will see O'Neill dish out caps as reward for players who have travelled around without much game time during qualification, that's not his way.

Anyone who puts on the new Northern Ireland home shirt this evening and going forward will have to earn it.

"The players who played in qualifying want to play and they deserve to play. It's not a case of giving someone a shirt - they have to take that off someone who is playing," said O'Neill.

Sentiment won't come into O'Neill's thoughts. It can't afford to. He is intent on making a real impact at Euro 2016 and as was the case ahead of the 10 Group F fixtures, preparation will be key to making that happen.

What O'Neill will consider when selecting his side and substitutions is what his first choice players have been doing at their clubs. Some are virtually playing every minute while others are hardly involved at all.

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"I have to look at the likes of Steven Davis and Ollie Norwood, who've played a lot of minutes at their club, but Chris Baird's not been playing at Derby and probably needs 90 minutes. Kyle (Lafferty) needs 90 minutes. You just have to get the balance right," said O'Neill.

"Sometimes a chance can come through injury like with Chris Brunt being out for this game. We'll look at that scenario at left-back. There's a chance for someone to stake a claim.

"On the back of what we have achieved our Fifa ranking is now 29 in the world and we want to try and maintain and improve that.

"Realistically before the summer we will have four games after this one and it will all be about the level of performance, understanding what we want in terms of people knowing their roles in the team and equally we will have to be flexible and potentially look at different systems.

"We have to look at the opposition we are going to play in France and we will be playing against top, top teams, perhaps Italy, France, Spain, Germany and teams like that, and with all due respect we would have to approach those games differently than we did in qualifying against Hungary, Romania or Finland for example.

"It is another level up and we have to make sure we are ready for that."

O'Neill says facing England or the Republic of Ireland, if they come through their play-off, would add spice in France, but at this stage he is not unduly bothered who Northern Ireland will draw.

His focus is on a positive performance tonight and extending a seven match unbeaten run prior to another visit to find the perfect base camp in France for the squad.

He estimates once the players have finished their club seasons they could be together for at least 35 days ahead of and during the finals, but insists unlike other sides, England being one in the past, boredom won't be a problem for his boys.

He wants them to be mentally and physically strong for the Euro 2016 experience.

"It's important to look at all aspects of the camp and how we do it so when we arrive in France the players are as prepared as possible mentally and physically," said O'Neill.

"The tactical side of things is probably the easy part, it's more the mental bit of the job for players coming off the back of long seasons where we have to be precise and get it right."

Tonight O'Neill will use 17 players giving game time to those who got him to France so in defence Conor McLaughlin, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart and Shane Ferguson should play at some stage, as will Davis, Norwood, Baird and Corry Evans in midfield plus Jamie Ward, Stuart Dallas, Niall McGinn, Lafferty and Josh Magennis further forward. What will be intriguing is to see if Billy McKay, Will Grigg or Liam Boyce get a run out.

Two out of the three goalkeepers (Michael McGovern, Alan Mannus and Roy Carroll) are likely to feature in a night when a full house crowd can pay tribute to a team that will continue to do us proud.

Belfast Telegraph