Belfast Telegraph

Smith expects Koeman to receive a hostile reception from fans


Positive approach: Michael Smith hasn’t given up on his dream of helping Northern Ireland to automatic qualification
Positive approach: Michael Smith hasn’t given up on his dream of helping Northern Ireland to automatic qualification

By Graham Luney

Michael Smith has predicted a "nice welcome" for Netherlands boss Ronald Koeman at Windsor Park tomorrow night and he hasn't let go of the dream of automatic qualification for the Euro 2020 finals.

Northern Ireland's best chance of making the finals is via the play-offs in March as the challenge of finishing off their Group C campaign with wins over the Netherlands and Germany feels like mission impossible.

But Hearts defender Smith is still daring to dream, and the rematch with the Dutch has been given added spice by Koeman's disrespectful comments after the 3-1 reverse in Rotterdam.

The former Everton and Southampton manager claimed the visitors' tactics were "outrageous" and "terrible to watch", but he may see a more attacking Northern Ireland side tomorrow.

Smith, who began his career with Ballyclare Comrades and then moved to Ballymena, wants to finish the group with a bang and give Koeman something else to complain about.

"Automatic qualification is a massive task but it's not impossible," said the 31-year-old.

"We know we have to go out on Saturday and win the game, and that's how we'll set up, to go out more on the front foot than in Rotterdam.

"We're the home team, we've got the crowd and we've got to do that, we've got to win. The play-offs are the fall back, it's not guaranteed but basically we're in a spot at the minute.

"We've nothing to lose really. We're not expected to go out and beat Holland but we're the home team and who knows.

"We haven't spoken about the play-offs this week at all, it's solely on Holland first and then we'll turn our attention to Germany.

"I think Ronald will get a nice welcome in Belfast. He can say what he wants, he's a top-class manager but I disagree with his comments. We were hard to play against that night, we probably didn't have a lot of the ball which was expected but they didn't have an easy night.

"It was probably through frustration and not beating us 5-0 that he's said those things.

"I wouldn't say they were massively poor, they had a lot of the ball, they just had no space between us, our shape was tremendous up until the last 10 minutes, then we sort of lost of a little shape, but his comments were what they were, we're not happy with them, Michael I'm sure was not happy with them.

"So let's see what sort of reception he gets."

With Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill now managing Stoke City, the Netherlands clash could be his final fixture at Windsor Park. A big win over the Dutch would be a fitting tribute to O'Neill and the players will aim to deliver that.

"He's been brilliant to every one of us," added Smith.

"He's had a incredible eight years, so to give him a win against Holland… he says that's probably the one thing missing from his CV here is a really big scalp, so that would be fantastic to send him off from Windsor that way.

"I think in times gone by, against those teams you sat back and waited for them to come on, but now if you go on the front foot, especially at home, you can rattle the big teams a little bit.

"I wasn't involved in the Germany game but, watching on, the lads in the first half were tremendous.

"We could have been 2-0 up, that was all credit to their energy, work-rate, the pressing was fantastic. It shows it does work.

"Managers are all different but Michael is really astute, very tactically switched on. He knows the way to set up a team.

"In international football it's hard. You come up against a team like Holland and then maybe a San Marino so it's two extremes. You've got to adapt and he does that really well.

"You get the Jonnys and the Davos (captain Steven Davis) who have played at the high level and then someone like me for instance playing in Scotland, obviously not at the same level, but he knits us all together as a group."

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