Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill: we must not let the heat melt our Euro dream

Having a ball: Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart train at the Le Coq Arena
Having a ball: Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart train at the Le Coq Arena

By Paul Ferguson

Michael O'Neill will warn his players to be wary of a wounded animal as Northern Ireland tackle Estonia in a crucial Euro 2020 qualifier in Tallinn tonight.

Northern Ireland are hoping to record their second victory over Estonia in a matter of just three months at the Le Coq Arena which would keep them at the top of Group C, ahead of Germany and Holland.

In March, at Windsor Park, O'Neill's men triumphed 2-0 after dominating play and facing little resistance.

But O'Neill knows many of the Estonian players hadn't even started their season three months ago, their domestic games are now in full swing and this evening in Tallinn, the Northern Ireland players, many of them having not played a competitive game in over a month, must deal with performing in temperatures reaching the high 20s.

"We had a lot of possession at home, at one point we had 72 per cent possession after about 75 minutes, although we didn't create as many opportunities as we would have liked and we missed chances," conceded O'Neill.

"We'd have liked to have scored earlier than the 55th minute as well - but I thought we showed a lot of patience and maturity, continued to play as we had done without forcing it or playing longer passes and getting a little bit anxious in our play.

"I think this game will be a little bit more balanced. I would expect Estonia to carry a greater threat at home.

"In international football that's pretty much the way it always works, generally the onus is on the home team to create more.

"With that in mind, we have to be wary.

"Estonia had a very good chance at 1-0, possibly their only chance in the game, and thankfully Bailey (Peacock-Farrell) made a big save for us at an important moment.

"We're looking for the same level of performance and hoping to have the same level of dominance as in Belfast."

O'Neill is conscious of the fact Northern Ireland need to win this evening and also on Tuesday night in Borisov to give the men in green a realistic chance of competing with Germany and Holland for the right to qualify from Group C.

He argues if Northern Ireland can secure victory then it makes the daunting trip to Borisov just that little bit easier.

O'Neill said: "I'm a great believer in the double-header, particularly away from home, if you can win the first game, you're in a good position mentally to take on the second game. Often your opponent has had a negative result in the first game and Belarus have a very difficult game against Germany as well.

"All our focus is on Estonia and making sure we win the game."

Northern Ireland have been at their best recently when they have employed a high-tempo game plan so with that in mind, flying wingers Jordan Jones and Gavin Whyte may be selected down the flanks.

But can that be achieved with the temperatures so high and the conditions so sweltering?

O'Neill insists that the weather will not be used as an excuse and his players have prepared for the climate they will face during their training camp in Austria earlier this week.

"The temperatures in Austria were high and we trained at times of the day to help the players acclimatise and that helped, no doubt," stated O'Neill.

"The four days in Austria training in that heat and intensity will help us with conditions here.

"It's important you manage the game in terms of the intensity of the game as well, but with this group of players there's an undercurrent of younger players in the squad, so we are well equipped to deal with that.

"We're looking for a similar type of performance we had in Belfast and we won't be using the weather or conditions as an excuse not to perform."

Northern Ireland haven't won or even scored in a competitive away match since September 2017 when they defeated San Marino 3-0, so tonight the men in green are looking to arrest a slide of seven games.

But O'Neill would counter that statistic with the fact that his team last lost a Euro qualifier over four and a half years ago - a 2-0 defeat to Romania in November 2014.

"If you look at the last two campaigns, our away record is quite strong - we had 10 points in the campaign for Euro 2016 and about seven for the World Cup, so we are much better equipped to play away from home than we have been in the past.

"I know historically our away record is something different but this is a different group of players and Steven (Davis) would verify that there is a confidence when we go away from home now, that we are capable of getting a result.

"That comes with good preparation, good commitment from the players, and a good level of performance to win games away from home."

O'Neill has some big decisions to make in terms of selection. Does he keep Stuart Dallas at right-back or move him further forward? Who gets the nod between Corry Evans and Paddy McNair in midfield? And up front, Liam Boyce, Kyle Lafferty and Josh Magennis are all vying for that lone striker role.

These are exciting times for Northern Ireland football, 1,100 members of the Green and White will be cheering on their heroes inside the A Le Coq Arena but the Euro 2020 qualifying dream can realistically only continue with victory this evening.

The players have been warned.

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