Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill mulling over attacking options in plan to beat Virgil Van Dijk

Netherlands v N Ireland, Euro 2020 Qualifying Group C, Stadium Feijenoord, Thursday, 7.45pm

Up for it: Niklas Suele, (centre) of Germany and his team- mate Matthias Ginter battle for the ball with Virgil van Dijk of the Netherlands
Up for it: Niklas Suele, (centre) of Germany and his team- mate Matthias Ginter battle for the ball with Virgil van Dijk of the Netherlands
Josh Magennis

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill relishes a challenge. The bigger, the better for the Northern Ireland boss.

One of the few bright spots in his first qualifying campaign in charge was producing a plan to nullify the threat of the great Cristiano Ronaldo in a 2012 World Cup encounter.

Ronaldo, then with Real Madrid, was desperate to deliver a typical five-star performance because he was winning his 100th cap for Portugal.

But the former Manchester United hero, now playing for Juventus, was frustrated on the night due to O'Neill's clever tactics at the back not allowing the goal machine any space to shine in a 1-1 draw.

One year later Ronaldo made up for his disappointment by netting a hat-trick in a 4-2 victory at Windsor Park, but for that evening in Porto, O'Neill was king.

The Northern Ireland supremo knows full well another tactical masterclass will be required in Rotterdam on Thursday night when Holland are the opposition in a vital Euro 2020 qualifier.

This one will be even tougher to execute because O'Neill appreciates he will have to come up with unbeatable ideas for both ends of the pitch.

The withdrawal of Norwich City left-back Jamal Lewis yesterday due to a knee injury makes the task in keeping the free-scoring Dutch quiet more difficult.

Lewis has been brilliant since coming into the fold and will be missed on Thursday night. Bailey Peacock-Farrell will start in goal and Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart will operate in the heart of the defence, but the full-back positions from last month's 2-0 home defeat to Germany are now set to change.

One scenario is to move the reliable Stuart Dallas from right-back to the left, with Hearts ace Michael Smith, returning from injury, replacing the versatile Leeds United man. Another is Millwall's Shane Ferguson coming in at left-back so that Dallas plays further forward.

Whoever is called upon will have to halt a side who have claimed four goals away from home against Germany and Estonia in their previous two Euro qualifiers.

Stopping Holland is a test and a half. Scoring against them is perhaps even harder, with Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk the main man at the back for those in orange.

O'Neill believes Van Dijk is the best defender in the world. The same goes for captain Steven Davis, who played with the ex-Celtic ace at Southampton.

"Whenever I was playing with him he was a bit of a Rolls Royce," said Rangers midfielder Davis.

"Everything seemed to come so easy for him. Physically he has all the attributes and technically he has all the attributes, and you can see him growing with the experience he is getting at Liverpool.

"He seems to be taking it to another level from when I played alongside him. I think everybody that played alongside Virgil expected he would do really well. We could see how easy the game was to him and everyone was a bit envious of that. He's a top, top player and is showing that on a regular basis now."

So, what's O'Neill's verdict on Van Dijk, who has helped transform Liverpool into European champions and potential Premier League winners?

"I watched him a lot at Celtic and the quality was always there, he just needed to be challenged at Premier League level. He's shown he can get up to that level very easily. He's a massive player for both club and country. When you have a player like that against your team, it makes it very difficult to score," said the Northern Ireland boss.

"It's a different challenge as opposed to facing an attacking player like Cristiano Ronaldo. Even if we can get the better of Van Dijk once, we need to try and maximise that opportunity.

"Van Dijk is playing against the best strikers in Europe, not only in the Premier League but also in the Champions League, and winning those battles, so we have to seriously think about our attacking options."

They are Hull's Josh Magennis, Burton's Liam Boyce, fresh from his first two league goals of the season, and Linfield finisher Shayne Lavery.

O'Neill has suggested Kyle Lafferty has not yet played enough football at new club Sarpsborg to be considered for a starting spot.

"Josh brings with him power, pace, physical presence, but relative to Van Dijk the physical presence is maybe not as significant. Shayne brings pace, energy and enthusiasm, Liam brings a different dimension in terms of his link-up and Kyle needs to play more club games at this moment in time," said O'Neill.

Maybe a wildcard could be playing Cardiff's Gavin Whyte up top. The former Crusaders ace certainly troubled Germany when he came on last month.

The way the group stands - with Germany top (12 points), Northern Ireland (12) second and Holland (9) in third with a game in hand - O'Neill knows he needs a point in Rotterdam to set up a mouthwatering winner takes all qualification clash against Ronald Koeman's side in Belfast.

In all probability, that means Northern Ireland will have to score, finding a way past Van Dijk in the process.

Upcoming fixtures

October 10: Belarus v Estonia, Netherlands v N Ireland; October 13: Belarus v Netherlands, Estonia v Germany.

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