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Michael O'Neill has plenty to ponder as Northern Ireland begin Euro quest

Euro 2020 qualifiers

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Gearing up: Northern Ireland stars train at The Oval ahead of the start of the Euro 2020 qualifiers

Gearing up: Northern Ireland stars train at The Oval ahead of the start of the Euro 2020 qualifiers

Michael ONeill

Michael ONeill

Stephen Hamilton/Presseye

Defensive pillar: Jonny Evans during Northern Ireland training

Defensive pillar: Jonny Evans during Northern Ireland training

Stephen Hamilton/Presseye

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Gearing up: Northern Ireland stars train at The Oval ahead of the start of the Euro 2020 qualifiers

Here we go again then. Northern Ireland are back on the major tournament merry-go-round this week. Manager Michael O'Neill will hope they aren't pushed off like last time when Switzerland ended a World Cup dream.

That was back on November 12, 2017. Much has happened since, though perhaps the four Nations League defeats are best forgotten.

Following play-off pain in Basel, the highlights have been O'Neill staying put despite Scotland's advances, and on the pitch, Paul Smyth's debut goal and acrobatic celebrations in a 2-1 friendly victory over South Korea plus Gavin Whyte scoring with his first touch in senior international football in a 3-0 win at home to Israel.

There was also an encouraging display last November when Northern Ireland drew 0-0 in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland, though that will be remembered more for being Martin O'Neill's final home game working for the FAI.

A month later, O'Neill, Michael that is, returned to the fair city to see Northern Ireland paired with Germany and Holland in Group C of the Euro 2020 qualifiers. Estonia and Belarus were also in there, though on the day of the draw little attention was paid to them.

Mighty Germany always qualify for tournaments, even if in the 2018 World Cup they were garbage, and the Netherlands, after much failure and soul searching, are beginning to shine with Virgil van Dijk leading an orange march back to respectability.

O'Neill, 50 in July, was correct in his assessment last week that if qualification is achieved from this group - and to do so a top-two finish is needed - it will be the nation's finest football feat.

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The good news for Northern Ireland is that they could have 12 points on the board by the time they face the Dutch or Deutschland.

O'Neill's men travel to Estonia and Belarus in June after facing them at Windsor Park on Thursday and Sunday.

While lack of playing time at club level is obviously an issue for many of his key figures, Northern Ireland should win both games.

In O'Neill's reign - his first match in charge was seven years ago - he has provided hope when there seemed none and has delivered the Green and White Army to the promised land known as the Euro 2016 finals in France.

He has vowed to attack Estonia, so the fans can expect adventure. They can also be sure that Craig Cathcart, who has had such a brilliant season for Watford, and Jonny Evans, hitting form for Leicester at a good time, will form the backbone of the defence. As the only two English Premier League stars in the squad, their places are guaranteed.

Ditto Jamal Lewis at left-back. As O'Neill says he's the best in his position in the Championship and will be in the top flight with Norwich City or someone else next season.

The right-back slot is not so cut and dry. Hearts ace Michael Smith would have filled it but for injury. Contenders? Paddy McNair, Conor McLaughlin or, given the attacking frame of mind, why not Stuart Dallas, the flexible Leeds star who has been Northern Ireland's most consistent player over the past year.

Captain Steven Davis may not have made the impact at Rangers that looked a sure thing, but he remains the nation's most influential player and will have George Saville alongside him in midfield. Oliver Norwood would have been there too but has not joined the squad due to personal reasons, while a hamstring issue may rule Corry Evans out.

In attack, O'Neill is spoilt for choice on the flanks with Dallas primed if not deployed elsewhere. Whyte, Smyth and Shane Ferguson would relish an opportunity, but in-form Niall McGinn and Jordan Jones may get the nod if he goes for 4-3-3, while up top Kyle Lafferty, Liam Boyce and Will Grigg are vying for a starting spot with Josh Magennis and Conor Washington ready to spring from the bench.

Another big call is between the sticks. Partick's Conor Hazard may be the only goalkeeper playing regularly but surely it's a straight choice between youngster Bailey Peacock-Farrell and the more experienced Michael McGovern.

The Fermanagh man was, of course, a Euro 2016 hero. That was then. For O'Neill and his team, it's all about a 2020 vision now.


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