Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Greece boss Claudio Ranieri rejects talk of winning automatic spot for Northern Ireland

By Steven Beacom

Greece manager Claudio Ranieri has dismissed the chances of Northern Ireland claiming an automatic qualification place at the 2016 European Championship finals, despite Michael O'Neill's men making an outstanding start to the campaign.

For the first time in our wee country's history, Northern Ireland came from behind to win a competitive fixture away from home as they beat Hungary 2-1 in Budapest on Sunday, having gone a goal down in the second half.

The stirring comeback and first away win in four years, thanks to goals from Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty, has offered hope to Northern Ireland fans, who had become disillusioned following the World Cup campaign when the team finished fifth in a six team group, losing away to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in the process.

The target prior to the weekend was for O'Neill's men to finish in third place in their Euro group and guarantee themselves at least a play-off, but the victory in Hungary has now got supporters dreaming of a top-two finish and an automatic entry into the finals in France.

Former Chelsea boss Ranieri, known as the Tinkerman during his time at Stamford Bridge, does not see that happening, declaring that his Greece team and Romania, who surprisingly won 1-0 in Athens on Sunday, remain in pole position.

Ranieri said: "We made a lot of mistakes in the defeat, but I'm not angry. It was the first match and nothing has really changed. Greece and Romania remain the favourites in the group."

Romania were helped by the fact that the match was played behind closed doors, with Greece being punished by the football authorities for previous crowd disturbances, but the visitors still deserve much credit for the victory as they had to play with 10 men for most of the second half after their early goalscorer Ciprian Marica was red carded.

Ten months previously Greece had overcome Romania in the World Cup play-offs to reach Brazil so there was definitely revenge in the air.

Next up for Romania is a home game with Hungary, which should be feisty given the history between the countries, while Greece are targeting six points from six in their October double header away to Finland and at home to Northern Ireland.

Ranieri is being paid big bucks by the Greeks and knows he cannot fail in those two matches.

Before O'Neill's side visit the home of the Euro 2004 winners, they will aim for a comfortable victory over the Faroe Islands on October 11 at Windsor Park.

When the draw was made the Faroes, minnows of the group, stated their best chances of winning points in this campaign would come against Finland and Northern Ireland.

It hasn't worked out that way so far, though they did take the lead at home to Finland on Sunday before eventually going down 3-1.

Defender Odmar Faero saw enough in his side's performance, however, to predict that they will earn themselves a big result in the qualifiers.

Northern Ireland must ensure it does not come against them.

Faero said: "This is probably the strongest squad I have been part of and I believe we will collect a few points."

Returning from suspension to O'Neill's squad next month should be Manchester United's Jonny Evans. It will be intriguing to see if he comes straight back into the side.

Belfast Telegraph


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