Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill discusses the Netherlands weakness that Northern Ireland will look to exploit in Euro 2020 qualifer

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill will need to outwit Netherlands boss Ronald Koeman if his side are to get a result in Rotterdam.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill will need to outwit Netherlands boss Ronald Koeman if his side are to get a result in Rotterdam.

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill wants his side to take advantage of the pressure Holland are under to qualify for their first major tournament since 2014.

O'Neill's team will be overwhelming underdogs against the Dutch in Thursday night's crucial Euro 2020 clash in Rotterdam, but Holland's recent record when the crunch comes in qualifying campaigns offers hope.

After missing out on Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, Ronald Koeman was recruited last year to end what is viewed as an embarrassing run in the Netherlands.

Koeman inspired the Dutch to the Nations League decider in the summer when they lost to Portugal, but now the heat is on to take his home country back to the big time.

Northern Ireland are in a position to extend the pain. Germany are primed to qualify from Group C, with the other spot between the nations currently in second and third places in the table. Whoever comes out on top in the Northern Ireland v Holland double-header, starting in Rotterdam on Thursday and ending at Windsor Park next month, will qualify for Euro 2020 without needing a play-off.

"Holland will view themselves as a team capable of winning the European Championships but they have to get there," said O'Neill, who yesterday suffered a blow when Norwich City left-back Jamal Lewis pulled out of his squad due to a knee injury.

"They have missed the last two competitions, obviously Russia (2018 World Cup) and France (Euro 2016), so that's an added pressure on them. This Holland squad isn't seasoned with the experience of previous squads and maybe that's something we can exploit."

A heavy defeat away to the Dutch would be a killer blow to Northern Ireland's chances of qualifying from the group. O'Neill insists, however, that he is refusing to think about the possibility of the play-offs and the convoluted way they are set up.

"It is too complicated to do that and there is too much football to be played," he said.

"There are a lot of groups in the balance. My focus has been on trying to finish in the top two spots in our group.

"The play-offs are not something I would discuss with the players. Our focus last month was on trying to win the game against Germany. We didn't manage to do that, so our focus now moves to Holland and in these two games to find the results we need to qualify.

"If that isn't in our favour, we have to hope we are thrown a lifeline through the play-offs. If that is the case, we'll be delighted, but right now it is not something we have put any focus on."

O'Neill will adopt a more cautious approach in Holland than the gung-ho display which rattled Germany.

"We are playing a team right at the top level and this will be even more difficult than Germany because we are away from home," stated O'Neill.

"We always wanted to create head-to-heads at the end of the group and that's what we have. We are in a double-header with Holland, and I believe if we get four points we will qualify. That's the challenge for us."

At Koeman's press conference yesterday, Northern Ireland didn't crop up, with the Dutch media focusing on the home players. That should change as the week progresses.

Belfast Telegraph

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