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Northern Ireland can beat Germany and Holland at Windsor: Michael O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill could see it coming. Holland and Germany had already been paired together in Group C in the Euro 2020 qualifying draw and the pot three nations including Northern Ireland were about to learn their fate.

When the Republic of Ireland were picked in the same section as the Dutch and Germans there were gasps of disappointment and awe from locals inside the Dublin Conference Centre.

O'Neill didn't bat an eyelid. Typically aware of the rules and regulations he instantly knew the Republic would be moved to Group D, because three hosts in the Euro 2020 finals weren't allowed to play each other in qualifying.

Then came the scenario O'Neill could have done without as Northern Ireland were drawn out next and placed in Group C alongside big hitters Netherlands and Germany. Later they would be joined by Estonia and Belarus.

As for the Republic, they landed Switzerland, Denmark, Georgia and Gibraltar.

The top two in each of the 10 groups qualify for the Euro 2020 finals. If Northern Ireland deliver what many feel is mission impossible it will be O'Neill's biggest achievement and he's had a few not least inspiring the team to Euro 2016. It would also rank as arguably the nation's greatest football triumph.

"I knew when Holland and Germany came out together that neither Scotland or the Republic of Ireland, as hosts, could be in that group," said O'Neill.

"As a pot three team like them, I knew it would be ourselves, Israel or a couple of others. There weren't many options.

"Obviously we were picked next and if it had gone the way it was drawn, we'd be in Group D with Switzerland and Denmark, which wouldn't be easier necessarily though it's one we would feel we could compete at the top end of it.

"But we have to approach the group we have in the same manner. It's possibly the toughest group we could get but we have to believe we can do it.

"I think we are capable of taking that big scalp, particularly at home, even against Holland or Germany and we'll need to do that to progress.

"We want to be competing and for every game to have a real meaning. Getting that little bit of momentum early in the campaign could be vital again for us as it was in Euro 2016.

"It's a great challenge for us to try to compete with two of the real powerhouses of European football and it is a step up from the League B teams we played in the Nations League."

On those two powerhouses, who have both enjoyed and endured ups and downs in the past decade, O'Neill added: "I think Holland are a good side, as the Nations League proved.

"They are a young side with a lot of young players who are keen to prove themselves, as you can see with Ajax in the Champions League. Two seasons ago they were in the Europa League, now they're qualifying in the Champions League with a game to spare.

"I think Holland will be very strong and the Germans will always be strong.

"There will be some transition in their team but the players they bring in will be good.

"They won the Under-21 Euros in recent times and the Under-19s and you'd expect to see some of those players emerge in this campaign.

"They went to the World Cup and were able to leave out a player like Leroy Sane and if you've watched him in recent weeks you'd expect him and a few of the younger players to come in."

O'Neill says home fixtures will be crucial adding that earning maximum points against Belarus and Estonia is vital.

"Estonia and Belarus will be tricky enough but we have proven ourselves to be a good team against those sorts of teams," said O'Neill.

"In the past those games were always tricky for us but we have handled them well recently and we have to look to do that again. Getting maximum points from those games is what we will have to be looking for.

"We also have to take everything we can from all of our home games. We have to believe we can take 10-12 points from the games at home and see what we can do on the road.

"Being in a five-team group is a plus point when you have limited resources. We will have three double headers instead of five."

Despite Northern Ireland finishing bottom of their Nations League group and not picking up a point against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Austria with a combination of factors they could still make it into the Nations League play-offs where four Euro 2020 spots will be up for grabs.

"The play-off route is not closed to us. We hope the teams people expect to qualify do and if we can perform well, that is a possibility. It's based on our co-efficient more than the Nations League," explained O'Neill.

"All we can do now though is focus on getting positive results in the Euro 2020 group and that's what we intend to do."

Belfast Telegraph

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