Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill prepares to lock horns with Fabio Capello

By Steven Beacom

A world apart: Michael O'Neill (far left) and Fabio Capello have taken different routes to their meeting at Windsor Park

ONE is on almost £8m per year, the other just above £200,000, but tomorrow night before Russia take on Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park they'll shake hands as equals.

Fabio Capello (he's the one on an annual salary of £7.8m in case you hadn't worked it out) and Michael O'Neill will be two managers quite simply hoping their teams do as instructed and come up with a big result.

Italian Capello expects and demands victory. O'Neill, not so much.

Truth be told a draw would be an excellent result for the Northern Ireland boss, who has yet to savour a victory in his nine games in charge at international level.

If there is not a home win tomorrow night, it'll be double figures which will give the current boss the unwanted record of the worst start ever of any of our international managers.

Capello will have no sympathy.

He's a ruthless operator and will see the match at Windsor as an opportunity to move Russia closer to World Cup qualification.

A shock defeat, however, and Capello will be under severe pressure.

Appointed in July last year, he was a loser as Russian boss for the first time two months ago when Portugal won 1-0 leapfrogging Capello's team to the top of the Group F table.

Another loss in Belfast and the knives will be out with questions asked about whether Capello really is worth all that money.

The mood in Russian football circles is that they MUST be at the World Cup in Rio next year. Finishing first in Group F guarantees a trip to Brazil.

Failure is not an option.

It's all part of the grand Russian plan for when they host the tournament in 2018. This is the period when Russian football is supposed to take over the world and Capello, for the moment, is very much part of it.

As a player he was a strong midfielder, respected for his tough tackling when winning honours with Roma, Juventus and AC Milan.

After a poor start to his Juventus career though he infamously criticised his boss Armando Picchi on the day it was revealed that Picchi had cancer.

It was a sign of things to come that Capello bounced back from that shame and a club fine to become one of Juve's most influential players as they dominated Serie A in the early 1970s.

Capello, 67, is better known as a coach remarkably managing both AC Milan and Real Madrid twice as well as Roma and Juventus to varying degrees of success before turning his attention to the international scene.

His £6m per year spell in charge of England from 2008 to 2012, with John Terry and the captain's armband at the centre of most of it, ultimately ended in failure.

Five months after leaving England, he was appointed Russian coach. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich had paid the wages of one of Capello's predecessors Guus Hiddink, but it's not so clear cut who is footing the gigantic bill for Fabio.

Earlier this year Arsenal shareholder and Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov made it plain that he did not pay Capello's salary after reports in Moscow claimed he did.

O'Neill's career has not been so eventful or lucrative, though he is 23 years younger, so there is time!

Burnt by Nigel Worthington's £500,000 a year wages, O'Neill's on less than half that with the Irish FA and a bonus scheme for wins which hasn't paid out yet.

The Northern Ireland man was an inventive midfielder with a keen eye for a pass and so promising as a youngster at Coleraine that Newcastle United snapped him up.

A brilliant career beckoned. It didn't quite work out that way with injuries and too many short spells at different clubs taking their toll, but anyone who saw O'Neill play for Glentoran in his latter days knew that here was one classy footballer.

He started his managerial career with Brechin before becoming a major success at Shamrock Rovers. Then he beat old international team-mates Iain Dowie and Jim Magilton to the Northern Ireland job. The players appear to like him and his coaching style, which can't be said of all the Russians playing under Capello.

O'Neill knows all too well that with the jury still out on him, he needs one huge result to kick-start this part of his footballing life.

Wouldn't it be great if that result came against Russia?

And given Capello's fame, if O'Neill can defeat the Italian it would do his own standing in the game the power of good.

Suddenly the IFA would be talking about a new contract.

In many ways O'Neill and Capello operate in different worlds, but tomorrow they'll be in the same place bidding to outwit each other.

At least the 44-year-old from Ballymena can enter the match safe in the knowledge that defeat won't lead to his dismissal.

Capello can't say the same.

Belfast Telegraph


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