Belfast Telegraph

World Cup 2018

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Peru PER

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Nigeria NGA

Argentina ARG

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Northern Ireland's promising young stars must start to progress, says Michael O'Neill

By Paul Ferguson

There will be a little bit of envy emanating from the Northern Ireland camp early tomorrow inside the Estadio Rommel Fernandez.

This will be Panama's farewell match at home before they make the long trek to Russia to compete in their first ever World Cup finals.

Thousands of Panamanians, drunk on the excitement of appearing on the biggest stage of all in football, will ensure there is a carnival atmosphere for the match.

Northern Ireland's players and manager, having missed out on the World Cup in agonising fashion in the play-offs to Switzerland, have insisted they are over that heartache and have moved on. But matches like tonight's encounter can open up a raw wound as the men in green will be left to watch the World Cup on television.

The fact Panama qualified for the greatest show on earth having accumulated 13 points in Concacaf qualification compared to Northern Ireland's 19 just makes it even harder to completely forget.

The majority of the Panama team play in the United States' MLS, with Seattle Sounders defender Roman Torres a huge beast of a man, their star player.

"We've watched their games in qualification and we've watched the more recent games with interest," said O'Neill from his team base in Panama City.

"They've changed the way they've played when they've come up against European opposition, which is quite understandable.

"I think they'll want to win this game, it's their final send-off match so they'll want to win it and put on a performance, especially as there will be a good home crowd to see them off.

"But I always look at the fact they qualified - winning three games out of 10, 13 points, and going through automatically shows you the difference and the difficulty there is for the likes of ourselves and other nations.

"We expect a tough game. The pitch is far from great. Surroundings are a little bit different from what we're used to but it's just nice to be here.

"It's something different for the players. We've a number of young players having experiences they've not had before."

O'Neill, with a depleted squad due to injuries and unavailability to a number of key players, is likely to give a number of inexperienced players their opportunity to shine.

The Panama players, having watched them in training, will not relish playing against the pace of Paul Smyth and Gavin Whyte, while Bailey Peacock-Farrell or Conor Hazard could be given their debut in goal if O'Neill opts to keep Trevor Carson for Sunday's match against Costa Rica.

Jordan Thompson and Shayne Lavery are two exciting prospects that could pose problems off the bench.

In midfield, without Steven Davis, Ollie Norwood and George Saville, skipper Jonny Evans could be pushed forward to play with his brother Corry and Paddy McNair - three players who came through the Manchester United system - while Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart are expected to be the centre back pairing.

This tour, though, is about integrating the next generation of Northern Ireland players into the squad and O'Neill is ready to give them their opportunity on the international stage against World Cup opposition.

O'Neill stressed this is just the start of a long journey, and there were players on the trip to South America four years ago who did well but haven't fulfilled their potential.

"I'm excited about them all, that's why they're here," said O'Neill, who is now regarded as the most successful Northern Ireland manager on win percentages.

"I wouldn't have brought young players here if I didn't believe that they had a future to cement themselves in the squad.

"We believe in Gavin, that he has that potential, but it needs to be fulfilled soon. It needs to go to the next level.

"Paul Smyth has shown us what he's capable of in the South Korea game but we need to see more from all the young players to see what they are like at this level.

"The continued development of players is important. Ryan McLaughlin's a good example, Liam Donnelly's a good example as four years ago they were in South America with us.

"They're still players we have high hopes for but those four years hasn't let them become a regular player in our squad. That's the challenge.

"These young players that we have here, they're not in a different situation, we have to assess where they will be.

"They need to be somewhere in two years time - we want them to be playing regularly.

"At the minute, what we have is potential. Hopefully that potential will come through."

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Our coverage of Northern Ireland's tour to play Panama and Costa Rica is brought to you in conjunction with BetMcLean.

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