Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has told his players this week’s Euro 2020 qualifiers against Estonia and Belarus are “essential” to their hopes of navigating a tough group.
With Holland and Germany the other two nations in Group C, the games at Windsor Park on Thursday and Sunday are the most winnable of the eight fixtures facing Northern Ireland.
After that, the next task facing O'Neill's side is an away double-header against the same two sides, leaving the two big guns for the final four fixtures.
“They’re essential,” O’Neill said of his team's opening two games. “There’s no point saying otherwise. If we didn’t get a result, yes you still have games to make up but if we’re realistic we have to make sure with these two games we do everything possible to win.
“Our other two home games are Germany and Holland so without being disrespectful to Estonia and Belarus these are the easier games at home.”
In last year’s Nations League, Northern Ireland never recovered from the disappointment of losing a home game they dominated against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and went on to lose all four matches in the competition to suffer relegation.
Regaining some winning momentum is therefore vital if they are to keep themselves in hunt for a place in next year’s championships.
“These games are essential in terms of our opportunity for momentum, for points on the board,” O’Neill added.
“When you’re a smaller nation you need to be out in front. It’s very difficult to come from behind in qualifying when you’re a smaller nation.
“The players are under no illusions. We’ve looked at the group and talked about the scenarios.
“But that’s all talk at the end of the day. You can plan and plan but you have to go out and perform.”
The task may be daunting but the prize on offer feels tangible to the Northern Ireland players, with many of the current squad having been at Euro 2016 – which was Northern Ireland’s first major tournament in 30 years.
Davis: âEuro 2016 was one of the best experiences in our lives not just football so thatâs a real carrot for us.â— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) March 20, 2019
“Quite a number of the players experienced that Euros,” said captain Steven Davis. “It was one of the best experiences of our lives and not just in football.
“The carrot is there for us. We know the situation we are in in this group. We want to get off to a good start and see where we’re at.
“If you can get off to a good start, there’s a snowball effect and confidence and belief grows in the side.”
Not for the first time, O’Neill has several players in his squad who are not getting a regular game for their clubs, with more than half of the group not starting their final club match before the international break.
Davis is among those not playing regularly, having not yet got the game time he was hoping for when he swapped Southampton for Rangers in January.
.@NorthernIreland have been out training at Windsor Park this morning, but there was no Will Grigg, who has returned to Sunderland with an injury. Corry Evans also sat out with a hamstring problem. #GAWA pic.twitter.com/pMHPphi3c8— Ian Parker (@iparkysport) March 20, 2019
“It’s not panned out the way I would like up to this point,” the midfielder said. “It was good for me to get 90 minutes at the weekend. I’m feeling quite good but you need to get a regular run of games to get to the level you want.
“It’s not an unusual situation for us. It’s the way it’s been throughout my international career. At different times key players haven’t been playing but we’ve always managed to deal with it quite well.”