Euro finals place is within Northern Ireland's grasp if we can stay fit: Michael O'Neill
Confident Michael O'Neill is convinced wounded Northern Ireland will make up for previous play-off agony and reach the Euro 2020 finals - but only if his players remain fighting fit.
Northern Ireland, who were hammered 6-1 by Germany in their final qualifying match on Tuesday night, have been tasked with an away trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in next March's play-off semi-final before facing the winner of Slovakia and the Republic of Ireland for the right to play in the international football spectacular.
An Edin Dzeko-inspired Bosnia defeated Northern Ireland twice last year in the Nations League but, remarkably, O'Neill's men dominated both games and they were simply denied by individual errors and a lack of clinical finishing.
Now, 12 months on and with Northern Ireland having accumulated 13 points from Group C and been a stern match for the Netherlands in both qualifiers and Germany at home, O'Neill believes his side have improved so much collectively that they can not only beat Bosnia, but overcome either Slovakia or Mick McCarthy's Republic. However, the caveat is that he needs his key men fit and available.
Colossus defender Jonny Evans and the magnificently versatile Stuart Dallas were both absent against Germany due to illness and injury, while Premier League left-back Jamal Lewis and Cardiff winger Gavin Whyte were also sidelined.
Northern Ireland were badly exposed in their absence by a rampant Germany.
O'Neill said: "If we have a full squad, I believe we can beat Bosnia come March. If we're five or six players down it's very difficult to progress to the finals, it's as simple as that.
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"We have to keep Dzeko quiet and if we do that and win, then we will play either the Republic or Slovakia and we will happily take that."
O’Neill continued: “I have a squad of players I believe can get through the play-offs, but I need my best players available.”
Northern Ireland, in the last two years, have been heavily praised for their attractive style of attacking football, consistently taking the game to the opposition. It’s produced some fascinating encounters, most notably against Bosnia in the Nations League.
But O’Neill would happily swap the plaudits for his free-flowing football if it meant Northern Ireland progressing in the play-offs.
“When you get to the play-offs, it’s not about style of play, it’s about getting through, as simple as that,” stressed O’Neill.
“You’re not going to beat a team like Bosnia through style or possession, you’re going to have to fight first of all to get past Bosnia and then the winner of the Republic versus Slovakia.”
O’Neill left the Northern Ireland team hotel early yesterday morning to fly back to England to take charge of affairs at his new club Stoke City, ahead of their Championship match against Wigan Athletic on Saturday.
The Ballymena man insists he will still be Northern Ireland manager when the play-offs come around, after an agreement between Stoke and the IFA, and he hopes his men will enjoy better fortune than when they were in the World Cup play-offs two years ago.
Switzerland were fortunate to go through to the finals after a controversial penalty decision by Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan helped them to a 1-0 win on aggregate.
O’Neill reflected: “We’ve been in a play-off situation before and beaten rather harshly with the penalty that was given in the first leg.
“You can reflect on all these things, but the bottom line is that if I have a squad of players fit, I believe we can get through the play-off.
“We’ll turn up on a Sunday and we’ll be ready to play on a Thursday.
“There’s nothing we can do between now and March to affect the play-off.
“We’re not going to suddenly find a player who suddenly improves our squad or who suddenly improves our team, it’s just a case of fingers crossed the absentees from Frankfurt are ready in March.”