Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland must beat Belarus to set up cup finals against Germany and the Netherlands: O'Neill


On the run: Northern Ireland players during last night’s light training session at the ABFF Training Centre in Minsk
On the run: Northern Ireland players during last night’s light training session at the ABFF Training Centre in Minsk

By Paul Ferguson

Michael O'Neill is confident it will not be the hope that kills Northern Ireland's Euro 2020 dream in Borisov this evening.

The Northern Ireland manager and his players, who arrived in hot and humid Minsk yesterday, are aware of what is at stake against Belarus - the opportunity to give themselves a platform to have four cup finals in the autumn against European heavyweights Germany and the Netherlands.

The Germans and Dutch are expected to easily qualify for the finals but if the men in green can win their fourth game in a row at the start of this qualifying campaign, collect a maximum of 12 points and remain top of Group C going into the games in September, there is a chance, a slight chance, of causing a major qualifying upset come the final matches in November.

Northern Ireland know nothing other than victory will do in Belarus.

The challenge of Germany and the Netherlands, who of course reached the Nations League final on Sunday, is too great without holding a slight advantage over them.

"We know this game will be difficult, we saw Belarus' performance against Germany (last Saturday night) but the carrot is huge for us," confirmed O'Neill.

"The ability to have 12 points after four games will be a big achievement and put us in a strong position. That's all the motivation the players need.

"A win means the next four games (against Germany and the Netherlands) will have great significance. It really means we'd go into the last two games, games seven and eight, still with a chance of qualification regardless of what happens in between.

"That's the significance (of this game) - giving ourselves the best chance possible."

Northern Ireland needed a last-ditch winner from Josh Magennis to secure all three points against Belarus in Belfast three months ago. It was a physical and intense battle and O'Neill is anticipating a similar match in Borisov this evening.

The White Wings may have lost their opening three games in this campaign but they were against the Netherlands away, Northern Ireland away and a rejuvenated Germany side in Borisov.

O'Neill has watched the match against Germany and also read the report of the scout he sent to the game.

"We saw the game, we had someone at the game on Saturday night and had a good report on the match," admitted O'Neill.

"They changed the system and also personnel, maybe the coach is looking at what's down the line in terms of their Nations League play-offs (in 2020 for the right to play at Euro 2020) and possibly looking at that in terms of preparation.

"But it was a difficult game in Belfast and I felt we had a lot of control in the game, but then we gave away a goal, a slightly unfortunate goal after we had gone ahead.

"Whilst we always felt we could go on and win the game, we had to go to virtually the last few minutes to do that. As Estonia showed the other night against us, Belarus will look at this game as one they potentially could win.

"With that in mind, it'll be an extremely difficult game. They have talented players in their squad, they have players in season (playing for their clubs) as well. It was evident in their game against Germany that, even though they were 2-0 down, they kept going to the end - and that was the message we were given from the person who was at the game.

"We come into the game mentally in a good place because we won the last game (against Estonia), our mental tiredness is not the same, so that should be the key factor for us. We look forward to the game and we have everything to gain by trying to go out and get another three points."

Northern Ireland are staying in Minsk for the game as there are no suitable hotels for the squad in Borisov and last night O'Neill opted to conduct a light training session at a sports complex in the Belarus capital rather than take his players to the stadium for their usual training session on the eve of the match as it is around an hour and a half away by road.

This evening's game doesn't kick-off until late - 9.45pm local time - but O'Neill doesn't believe this will have an adverse effect on his team's preparation or performance.

"In terms of the schedule for the players, we'll just put everything back slightly," stated an unconcerned O'Neill.

"The added slight complication is the journey from Minsk to Borisov which is longer than you'd typically do on a matchday.

"But I don't think that will have any real effect in terms of our performance or our level of performance.

"And certainly the later kick-off time in terms of the weather will be something that the players will all be pleased about.

"I think even playing at 7pm in Estonia, it was still very hot and humid and hopefully with a 9.45pm kick-off, the conditions will be somewhat more favourable to us."

O'Neill has admitted that he may make one or two changes to his starting line-up tonight - especially considering the impact Conor Washington, Magennis and Jordan Jones made as second-half substitutes against Estonia on Saturday night.

He also has the options of bringing Corry Evans into midfield and using Stuart Dallas at right-back.

But the message will be the same to whatever personnel is out on the pitch for Northern Ireland.

Give every last sinew and keep the hope alive.


Tonight: Belarus v Northern Ireland; Germany v Estonia (both 7.45pm)

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