Fear is driving us to deliver, says Northern Ireland boss
As Northern Ireland prepare for a crucial four days that could propel them closer to a place at the World Cup finals in Russia next year, manager Michael O'Neill has revealed he feared his team would fall flat following their historic achievement at Euro 2016.
Northern Ireland qualified top of their group for France and then reached the last 16 of the finals before going out to a Gareth Bale-inspired Wales.
Tonight in San Marino, Northern Ireland have a chance of moving a step closer to securing second place in Group C and a play-off spot for Russia, but this time last year, when O'Neill's men started their World Cup campaign in Prague against the Czech Republic, the manager was concerned whether the players would be able to rise to the occasion in this qualifying series.
Northern Ireland, having drawn with the Czechs and defeated San Marino, Azerbaijan and Norway in Belfast and Azerbaijan again in Baku, lie second and four points clear of third placed Czech Republic in Group C behind runaway leaders Germany. They may need only a win and a draw against San Marino and the Czech Republic, depending on results tonight, to confirm second place.
O'Neill believes his players deserve immense praise in an incredibly tough group.
"There's always been an underlying fear that I think motivates you and drives you on to make sure you try and keep the team at the level they're at, and I think that fear has been there for the players as much as it's been there for me, so they deserve enormous credit for what has been a difficult group and some difficult circumstances," admitted O'Neill.
"To be in the position we're in after six games with a lot to play for in the remaining four games is exactly where we want to be, but it has taken a great deal of effort.
"It wasn't easy, particularly when Germany and the Czechs were group winners for the Euros, Norway were beaten in the play-offs and we knew Azerbaijan would present difficulties, and of course what San Marino are capable of as well.
"However, we have navigated the first six games well and now have a four-point cushion. The way the fixtures have fallen, we're in a position to really benefit."
While Northern Ireland won the first game in Belfast 4-0, and are expected to easily overcome the minnows tonight - despite the absence of injured Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart, Jamie Ward and Paddy McNair - O'Neill is giving San Marino total respect and has devised a plan to break down a team who will set out to frustrate Steve Davis and co.
O'Neill adds: "We've watched a lot of San Marino games prior to the game in Belfast and subsequently so, like any international country and a small one like ourselves, they have enormous pride in how they play.
"In Belfast they showed that because they stayed in the game, they hung in, even when they were down to 10 men and we led 1-0, they still tried to make things difficult for us, though it was always going to be difficult for them to get back in the game.
"They play with great spirit even when they're behind and they've taken some heavy defeats in recent times. Their attitude and the pride that they're representing the country is evident in all of their displays.
"The one thing you always want to avoid is complacency in this type of game, and the way to do that is to point out the mistakes you've made, your potential weaknesses and to make sure on the night we play as if we're playing Germany or Czech Republic and, having seen the players this week, that's what we anticipate for the type of performance we'll get."
O'Neill is likely to play a 4-3-3 formation with victory essential before returning in the early hours tomorrow morning to Belfast to prepare for Monday night's game against the Czech Republic at the National Stadium.