Belfast Telegraph

Slovakia v Northern Ireland: This is the perfect test ahead of Euros, says Michael O'Neill

Manager wants his boys to go to France on a high

By Paul Ferguson

While it would be morale boosting to claim the scalp of a side who recently defeated Euro 2016 Group C opponents Germany and beat Spain in qualifying, the result tonight for Northern Ireland against Slovakia in Trnava is really inconsequential.

The unbeaten record, now standing at 11 games, is one the players are particularly proud of, but what's more important to manager Michael O'Neill is the level of performance at the Stadión Antona Malatinského and to come through the final pre-Euro 2016 warm-up match unscathed.

An injury to any player in O'Neill's 23-man squad would land a devastating blow, especially considering Northern Ireland are already having to go to France without regular left back and West Brom ace Chris Brunt due to an horrendous knee injury. Defeat is not the end of the world.

Rather O'Neill wants his players to stand up to the challenge laid down by a Slovakian side, who he believes will give Northern Ireland a similar test to both Poland and Ukraine during the group stage of the European finals.

This game is the last opportunity to stake a claim for a shirt against Poland next Sunday in Nice.

So the likes of Conor Washington and Will Grigg will battling it out to try and persuade O'Neill to go with a second striker alongside Kyle Lafferty rather than attacking midfielder Jamie Ward.

Millwall's Shane Ferguson, fresh from Wembley play-off agony last Sunday, could start as left wing back, Paddy McNair and Chris Baird will be competiting for the holding midfield role, while Gareth McAuley, 11 years to the day since he made his debut against Germany, is set to resume at centre-half having been given the night off against Belarus last week.

"One of the reasons why I took the game against Slovakia was because I feel they are on a par with Poland and Ukraine," said O'Neill. "I suppose after last week's win over Germany they are now on a par with them too.

"It's the type of tough game we need going into the finals. Slovakia are an experienced team with top players who play in the top leagues all over Europe.

"I think if you combined their usual starting XI they have 855 caps between them. They are on an excellent run, they don't lose many games and don't concede too many goals either."

O'Neill and his team, following a big send-off last Friday night at Windsor Park and then last Monday at George Best City airport when the players looked resplendent in their Euro 2016 suits, spent four days in Austria.

It allowed O'Neill to work with his players away from the pressures and expectations there may be on the team going into the finals.

O'Neill is unlikely to name the team that starts against Poland next Sunday tonight in front of a crowd about 17,000.

The Northern Ireland manager and his staff are still using this game as preparation to experiment with a few minor things.

Slovakia hold the record of victories over Northern Ireland. The two teams have met on three occasions with Slovaks winning twice and Northern Ireland just once at Windsor Park in 1998.

The last time Northern Ireland played in Slovakia was in 2008 during a World Cup qualifier. It was staged in the capital Bratislava and Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel scored the opener while Hamsik netted the second. Northern Ireland were given a glimmer of hope with a late goal through a Durica og.

Slovakia, when the finals start in France this week, will be in England and Wales' Group B alongside Russia.

Numbers game

16: In their last 16 matches under Michael O’Neill Northern Ireland have won 9, drawn 5 and lost just 2.

3: The last time that Northern Ireland kept three successive clean sheets was between October 2006 and Feb 2007 when they drew 0-0 in Denmark, beat Latvia 1-0 and drew 0-0 with Wales (both games at Windsor).

4: Northern Ireland have not conceded a goal from open play in any of their last four matches.

6: The last time that Northern Ireland went six friendlies unbeaten was in 2004 under Lawrie Sanchez when they actually went unbeaten for six games between March 31 and August 18.

11: It will be eleven years to the day on Saturday that Gareth McAuley made his full International debut against Germany at Windsor Park.

55: The last time Northern Ireland scored in nine successive Internationals was 55 years ago when they actually scored in 12 consecutive games between November 1959 and October 1961.

12: Northern Ireland have now gone 12 Internationals without conceding a more than one goal in a game. The last time it happened was when they lost 2-0 in Romania in November 2014.

25: Will Grigg became the 25th substitute to come and score for Northern Ireland and the first since Niall McGinn who scored against Hungary in September 2014.

9: Slovakia won all nine of their Internationals in the 2014/15 season.

2: Slovakia have lost just two of their last 19 matches.

3: Only three of Slovakia’s 23 Euro 2016 squad actually play their football in Slovakia. Of the rest four play in Czech Republic and Italy; two in Russia and Germany and one each in Turkey, England, Austria, Qatar, Greece, Hungary, Poland and Netherlands.

Belfast Telegraph