Belfast Telegraph

Great expectations? Northern Ireland can handle San Marino says Steven Beacom

O'Neill unfazed by favourites tag and backs his men to turn on style

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has declared that his team can handle the growing expectations of the supporters following their Euro 2016 heroics. It wasn't too long ago that the height of the Green and White Army's ambition was to avoid defeat and earn some respectability during a qualifying campaign

Thanks to O'Neill and his players things have changed dramatically.

While the Northern Ireland fans are wise enough to know that finishing above Germany in their World Cup group is virtually impossible, they do believe that a runners-up spot and the likely play-off that comes with is on the cards.

O'Neill is comfortable with that pressure and content to be red hot favourites against San Marino tonight when Windsor Park will be officially opened.

"Being favourites for this game doesn't faze us at all," said a relaxed O'Neill at his press conference on the eve of Northern Ireland's first home match since they reached the knockout stages in France.

"It's just another game in terms of qualification. We will approach the match very positively and we'll do everything possible to win the game.

"As for the change in expectation from the fans that's what we want. I always said to the players expectation is a good thing. The worst thing you could have is no expectation. Expectation is a positive thing for us and the players will embrace that.

"I don't think you'll see any fear in terms of how they play. They went through difficult games in the qualification for France, they went through difficult games in the qualification for the 2014 World Cup and they're a lot more experienced now.

"A lot of those players have had those campaigns under their belt and the players at the latter stages of their career want to savour every moment in a green shirt and the players that are coming through are all trying to establish themselves."

Having created history by taking Northern Ireland to the European Championship finals for the first time in the nation's history, O'Neill was asked if it was a challenge for him to stay motivated for another campaign.

He replied: "Yes I think it is... in this job you have to have very high self-motivation to do it. If I went to two club games or 40 I'd still probably pick the same squad so the motivation has to be there to go and see the players."

Another challenge is taking on little San Marino at home on a Saturday and then travelling to meet World Cup holders Germany on their own patch a few days later.

"That transition is the most difficult part of international football," said the 47-year-old.

"I remember my first qualifier in charge where we were away to Fabio Capello's Russia and had to be difficult to beat and then we had to get back, turn the team around and play Luxembourg here with a totally different approach and different personnel.

"We're a lot better equipped for that now but I think we also benefit from the fact that it's only three months or so since we played Germany in Paris (at the Euro finals).

"We know what to expect, the work we did right through the Euros and leading right into the Czech Republic game, it's all relevant to playing Germany in Hanover.

"Our focus, though, is to win the first game against San Marino. The most important part of any game, more than being tactically ready, is being mentally right and if you win the first game you'll be mentally right for the second."

Quizzed on doubts about maintaining the highs and standards of the last successful campaign, O'Neill said: "You've always doubts. We haven't seen any dramatic changes to the squad and that's primarily because there are not players out there pushing their way in so we're still reliant on our key players.

"We need them fit, on form. It's encouraging going into this game that out of the 20 outfield players 17 started for their club at the weekend which is higher than we have seen in previous times.

"Bit by bit there will be small changes to the squad and team but it'll never be wholesale because of the resources available to us. Players like Steven (Davis), Gareth (McAuley), Jonny (Evans), Aaron (Hughes) have had long international careers and have had to wait a long time for success so they want it to last longer than one tournament. Our aim is to do our best to go to the next one."

  • N Ireland v San Marino, World Cup Qualifying Group C: Windsor Park, Saturday, 7.45pm

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