Belfast Telegraph

Aaron Hughes warns that even below par Russians could be a major threat

By Stuart McKinley

Aaron Hughes has warned his Northern Ireland team-mates and the fans alike that Russia can still be dangerous even when they aren't playing well.

Michael O'Neill's team will be going for their first win under his management and also their first victory in the World Cup qualifying group when they face the Russians at Windsor Park tomorrow night.

And Hughes is aware that Northern Ireland have to be at their best to get a result, while Fabio Capello's team have won games in the past despite producing below par performances.

"Russia are the team to beat in the group they have shown already why they are sitting up there," said Hughes

"They've had some great performances and some good results and even when they haven't maybe been at their best they have still ground out results.

"I can think of the Azerbaijan game, they made it difficult for them but Russia still managed to get the win there."

Northern Ireland lost 2-0 in Russia last September and then recorded three successive 1-1 draws against Luxembourg, Portugal and Azerbaijan before a home defeat against Israel last time out.

Now O'Neill is challenging his players to seize the opportunity to put a big result on the board and wipe away the disappointment of failing to collect more points from the five games in the first half of the campaign.

"The psychology changes from facing the likes of Azerbaijan or Israel at home as opposed to a Russia," said O'Neill.

"The players collectively and individually have a chance to enhance their reputations and they have everything to gain.

"I look back at that game in Moscow and there were aspects of the performance that were very good.

"We have, however, been a lot better in possession in other games than we were in Russia.

"There were some things in our preparation that could have been better and there were a lot of pleasing aspects in that game in terms of how solid we looked.

"When you compare that performance to the away game against Portugal we were a lot better in possession against Portugal and we have been on home games as well, albeit we haven't transferred that into goals."

O'Neill made an SOS call to Falkirk goalkeeper Michael McGovern yesterday morning after Alan Mannus withdrew from the squad with a shoulder injury.

Only two goalkeepers had been named in the original squad – St Johnstone's Mannus and established No.1 Roy Carroll.

While waiting for McGovern to fly into Belfast O'Neill invited Cliftonville's former under-21 international Conor Devlin to train with the squad alongside Carroll and new goalkeeping coach Maik Taylor.

McGovern has one cap to his name, having come off the bench in a 2010 friendly against Chile.

His call-up suggests there has been no change in Lee Camp's position.

Camp, released by Norwich at the end of last season, was first choice for a period under former boss Nigel Worthington, but opted to make himself unavailable after O'Neill made Carroll his number one.

Mannus' withdrawal was the only injury to hit O'Neill's squad as they trained in Belfast yesterday.

He also decided against calling upon any more players from his stand-by list, even though Dean Shiels scored for Rangers on Saturday.

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