Belfast Telegraph

Payback time for angry O'Neill as Northern Ireland face Luxembourg

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill is targeting tonight's World Cup qualifier in Luxembourg as an opportunity to right a wrong and banish memories of his worst experience as Northern Ireland manager.

The 44-year-old sees the 90 minutes in the Stade Josy Barthel as payback time for a year ago when little Luxembourg stunned Windsor Park by earning a 1-1 draw in O'Neill's first home competitive match in charge.

That was an embarrassing, indeed infuriating result for O'Neill and he is determined that he won't suffer the same fate again.

"It was the most disappointing match for me as Northern Ireland manager," he admitted.

"I've looked back at that game on a number of occasions and I still scratch my head about how we didn't win it with the number of chances we had.

"When you draw a game like that to a late deflected goal it is pretty hard to take, but we have to learn from it.

"There is a real focus amongst the boys and they recognise they have to make amends for what happened a year ago and that's what we intend to do."

Northern Ireland will have 1200 fans cheering them on tonight as they bid for their second win of the Group F campaign. Defeat would see little Luxembourg join O'Neill's men on six points with just two games left.

With Portugal and Russia battling it out at the top of Group F, O'Neill's aim is to finish above Luxembourg and Azerbaijan and maybe even challenge Israel for third spot.

To achieve that victory must be secured this evening.

"We said to the players that Portugal was our bonus ball. To be honest the three points we really need are from this game," said O'Neill.

"That would move us to nine points in the group and leave us in a good position to finish fourth at least and challenge for third.

"The Portugal game was fantastic in terms of the positives we took out of it even if it was hugely disappointing to lose from a winning position, but if given the choice of taking four points I would rather have drawn with Portugal and beaten Luxembourg than the other way round. To me it is imperative to win this game."

You get the feeling Luxembourg is personal for O'Neill who admits that the 1-1 draw between the sides at Windsor Park a year ago was the low point of his managerial career so far.

He is expecting another close affair this time.

"I think it will be tight. Luxembourg have no real mystery to their play. They are a strong unit with a high work ethic and come into the game with everything to gain," said O'Neill.

"It's similar to us when we play Russia and Portugal. They'll look at our players like Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley playing in the Premier League and think it would be a big scalp for them so we must show the same ability, application and intensity that was evident against Russia and Portugal in our last two matches."

O'Neill will bring Daniel Lafferty (below) back from suspension at left-back to operate alongside Evans, McAuley and Lee Hodson in defence with Roy Carroll behind them.

The front six, Niall McGinn, Davis, Oliver Norwood, Shane Ferguson, Jamie Ward and Martin Paterson, who played so well against Portugal for the first hour before the red cards for Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty disrupted the formation and tactics, deserve to start again.

As the campaign has progressed, more young players have come to the fore which O'Neill believes has helped generate excitement for the future.

He said: "I got the feeling when I took over there wasn't a real excitement about the future. People had looked at our World Cup group and they thought we had absolutely no chance. Hopefully the European Championship draw will be slightly kinder and with the performances we have put in lately there will be an excitement and optimism amongst the fans going forward.

"The big thing for us to have any sort of success is consistency of selection. I need my big players in particular to play eight, nine, 10 games in a campaign for us to have an impact."

Recently new FA chairman Greg Dyke complained about the numbers of English players (32%) in the Premier League.

Smiling O'Neill said: "My percentage is slightly lower than that... less than one percent because we have five players in the Premier League!"

He did add though that for young Northern Ireland stars outside the top flight international football was their chance to show what they could do in the big time and "enhance and improve their careers".

Aaron Hughes, injured at present, and McAuley, both 33, have long since passed the young player tag. There are fears that international retirement could be on their agenda at the end of this campaign.

O'Neill says he has had "a good conversation" with McAuley about the future which sounds positive and is hugely appreciative of what Hughes, now on 87 caps, has done for his country since coming out of retirement.

"Aaron has been the easiest to deal with. We've asked him to play out of position and the way he does it to such a level is testament to the player. He is vitally important to us.

"When you have Aaron Hughes in your squad as a manager you will always feel more secure. I will be pushing Aaron to continue. The 100 cap mark is a great carrot to throw out there. Given his service to Northern Ireland, it would be fitting if he were the first outfield player to achieve that."

Time will tell. First things first. Let's beat Luxembourg.

Belfast Telegraph

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