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After thousands of miles, Michael O'Neill is happy to be home

Michael O'Neill is searching for some home comforts tonight.

The Northern Ireland manager and his players have been on the road for so long they almost forgot what Windsor Park looked like until training at the stadium earlier this week.

They all noticed how much it had changed since their last fixture at the venue - a controversial and compelling 4-2 defeat to Portugal when Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty got themselves sent off.

Tonight the opposition is the Faroe Islands. Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored a stunning hat-trick for the Portuguese 13 months ago, would probably think he could beat them on his own!

All corners of the ground were packed to see the Real Madrid superstar shine in 2013. With the redevelopment work going on at Windsor to turn it into a 21st century sporting arena, only two stands will be in operation against the Faroes with 10,000 fans packing into the Kop and North Stands.

Regardless of the rather strange surroundings, O'Neill is just glad to be home.

Since the last match at Windsor, Northern Ireland have played eight away fixtures in Luxembourg, Azerbaijan, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Uruguay, Chile and Hungary.

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That's 34,000 miles - a figure worked out by the Press Association's Northern Ireland reporter Rory Dollard prompting O'Neill, in wisecracking mood, to tell him at yesterday's media briefing that he needed to get out more!

In more serious tone the boss broached the subject of the return to Windsor, on the back of an excellent 2-1 win in Budapest last month in the Euro 2016 opener, and living up to expectations when taking on minnows like the Faroe Islands.

"It's great to be back at Windsor after so many games away. The stadium is sold out and there will be a good crowd there. The backing of the fans will be huge for us on a night when the expectation is higher than it has been. We have to rise to that expectation," said O'Neill.

"I don't think the surroundings will play a huge factor on the game. Once it starts the players will be focused on what is going on out on the pitch.

"Since we last played in Belfast there have been disappointments, but I think we have grown stronger.

"Younger players have come into the squad which is important. While we still rely on the experience of Steven Davis, Gareth McAuley, Chris Baird and Aaron Hughes there is now a real youthfulness, adding to the core group of players. That has given the squad a lift and an energy.

"There are a lot of young players here who want to make their mark at international level. That's encouraging. It helps the mood and our preparation as well."

O'Neill says that mood has been 'excellent' with the players enjoying training on the glistening new Windsor Park surface.

The pre-match focus from the home side has been on attack, knowing that the visitors from the fishing country of the Faroes will park their trawlers in front of goal in the hope of scraping a draw or, even nicking a rare win.

"Our training has been slightly different because this is the first time we have played at home in a year," says O'Neill. "We have been good away from home without the ball and the shape of the team has been consistently good. Against the Faroes we anticipate having more possession than we have had in those away games and given that we will have more possession we hope to turn that into opportunities.

"Our attacking players often have to do a lot of work off the ball. This is an opportunity to show the other side to their game."

While intent to make a fast start, O'Neill did add that the team won't go out tonight and play in a cavalier fashion, which suggests Paddy McCourt, who scored two brilliant goals in a 4-0 win against the Faroes at Windsor three years ago, will be on the bench, ready, willing and able to come on.

A definite starter is key front man Lafferty, who should be supported by Jamie Ward and Niall McGinn. In midfield captain Steven Davis, will line up alongside Chris Baird and Oliver Norwood with all three offering craft and graft while at the back, ahead of goalkeeper Roy Carroll, Conor McLaughlin, Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley and Brunt deserve to keep their places after shining in Hungary.

Asked if he was concerned by disappointing past results against minnows, especially draws and defeats to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in the last World Cup campaign, O'Neill said: "We can't dwell on that. We may be favourites but we don't anticipate the game becoming easy in any shape or form. The Faroes, in their last campaign gave a lot of credible performances against Sweden and Germany, for example.

"They were beaten 3-0 by Germany but the game was 1-0 for 70 minutes which shows the resilience they have and the pride they have playing for their country. It's also a chance for them to showcase themselves at this level.

"What we have to do is play as well as we did in Budapest and with the same intensity and quality."

Do that and Northern Ireland will emerge victorious. Kick-off is 7.45pm.

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