Belfast Telegraph

It's time Northern Ireland took a big scalp: Michael O'Neill targets top victories when Germany and the Netherlands visit Belfast

Norther Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Norther Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

Michael O'Neill has overseen a meteoric rise in Northern Ireland's fortunes since he took the reins in 2012. Now he's challenged his squad to hit a new height.

On Tuesday evening, his side became history makers as their 1-0 victory in Belarus marked the first time a Northern Irelands side has ever begun a qualification campaign with four successive victories.

The Northern Ireland boss has been open about his strategy of splitting the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign in half. With 12 points from 12 in the first half, it's time to reset.

If that was a big ask, even if it was in two games each against Estonia and Belarus, the next time O'Neill meets with his players, he will lay out a plan to overcome an even greater obstacle.

Next up it's four games against Germany and the Netherlands, with the Germans' visit to Windsor Park next up on September 9.

And, while he knows it won't be easy, O'Neill says the time is right to target victories against the world's leading lights.

"They have to go in and believe they can win the game, it's as simple as that," he said.

"With the belief, the energy and the home crowd, we're capable.

"The next indication of progress of this team is to take a big scalp and we have two of the biggest scalps coming to Belfast in the next few months."

Northern Ireland are now three points clear of Germany at the top of Group C, having played a game more than Joachim Low's side.

O'Neill's men are also nine points clear of the Netherlands. But with Virgil Van Dijk and his team-mates having played two games less the current group leaders, Northern Ireland know big results will be required if they're to seal a top two finish and automatic qualification to the finals.

"We have created a points gap, particularly between ourselves and the Netherlands," O'Neill said. "Hopefully they'll play under a little bit more pressure.

"That was the objective that we set to the players when we got together in March.

"Sometimes people think these games (against Belarus) are a formality; they're not. They're not a formality for Northern Ireland. We're not going to come here and win 3-0."

Northern Ireland's next game is a friendly at home to Luxembourg on September 5, four days before Germany's visit to Belfast.

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