Belfast Telegraph

San Marino manager on a mission to stun Windsor

By Steven Beacom

San Marino manager Pierangelo Manzaroli wants his team to produce one of the biggest shocks of all time and create history against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park tomorrow night.

That's the dream for Manzaroli. The reality will surely be another defeat for the tiny republic with a population of just 33,000.

Northern Ireland have played as the underdog many times through the years, but for San Marino and their part-time footballers it is their role every time.

Rated 201st in the Fifa World rankings, they have NEVER tasted victory in a competitive match.

In 123 games, combining World Cup and European Championship qualifiers, that winning feeling when points are at stake has never been experienced.

Indeed, since 1990 when San Marino played their first official international, they have won only once - 1-0 in a friendly against Liechtenstein. That was 12 years ago.

Let's face it, if Michael O'Neill's men don't beat them in Belfast at the weekend it will be an almighty shock and an embarrassment.

The nations have met twice before with Northern Ireland easing to a 4-0 triumph at Windsor in a World Cup qualifier in 2008 when David Healy, Grant McCann, Kyle Lafferty and Steven Davis netted.

In the return the following year, a 3-0 success was secured thanks to goals from Gareth McAuley, McCann and Chris Brunt.

The Green and White Army will expect similar scorelines in their World Cup group games in this campaign.

While Northern Ireland were gaining a valuable point in a 0-0 draw in the Czech Republic last month in their opening qualifier, San Marino were losing 1-0 at home to Azerbaijan when the visitors enjoyed a whopping 76% of possession.

That was San Marino's 57th World Cup qualifying match and their 55th defeat. In those fixtures, San Marino have scored only nine goals and conceded 260, which is an average of four per match.

Despite all the facts and figures, if you don't have hope in football you have nothing, so it's no wonder Manzaroli is trying to inject some positivity into his players before they enter a raucous Windsor Park arena bouncing with 18,000 fans expecting a party on the pitch to go with the one off it to celebrate the Euro 2016 homecoming heroes.

"We approach this match with the best intentions," said Manzaroli. "We're aware of the value of Northern Ireland. We could see that at Euro 2016. We know we face a team that has good mentality, organisation and good players in a renovated stadium, which will be against us.

"But we are always grateful to be able to play these matches and will always work hard to try to get a positive result. This is always our goal.

"I hope that my players can keep the game in the balance for as long as possible."

Some international managers complain when their players are forced to play two games in the space of a few days, but the vast majority have full-time players to take the strain.

Not San Marino.

Only a few of their team make a living from football.

The rest range from app developers to accountants and factory workers to furniture removal men. There are several students too.

Asked about playing Northern Ireland tomorrow night before another away game against Norway on Tuesday, Manzaroli said: "This is more important to us than our opponents because our players are all amateurs, but even in this aspect we are improving a lot.

"But right now we are focusing on Northern Ireland. We mustn't think of anything else and we believe we can have a good game."

In their opening match of the campaign against Azerbaijan, Manzaroli's side opted for a 5-4-1 formation. The word from San Marino is that the manager is likely to go with the same system in Belfast with the plan to defend solidly and break from defence when chances to do so come along.

San Marino's most well known player is Andy Selva, a 40-year-old youth coach. He has scored eight goals for his country. Northern Ireland defenders will be extremely disappointed if they allow him or any other visiting player to score tomorrow night. Expect a home win and it should be a handsome one at that.

Belfast Telegraph


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