Belfast Telegraph

Solid victory has Michael's boys in excellent shape for Windsor blockbuster

 

Big chance: Liam Donnelly (right) with Ethan Galbraith
Big chance: Liam Donnelly (right) with Ethan Galbraith

By Steven Beacom

This was the calm before the stormy Monday night at Windsor Park. It was also job done with an understrength Northern Ireland defeating Luxembourg 1-0. That's five wins on the bounce now so momentum was maintained ahead of the mouthwatering Euro 2020 qualifier against the Germans.

Equally as important, Michael O'Neill's players didn't seem to pick up any injuries. The manager has had enough of them to deal with lately.

He can now go full speed ahead at the Germans who are at home to Holland tonight. If Joachim Low's side triumph versus Virgil van Dijk and co they will jump above Northern Ireland in the Group C table on goal difference. Just to hype up the Monday evening showdown that little bit more.

It could be one of those unforgettable Windsor occasions. In contrast the friendly success over Luxembourg won't live long in the memory for the 14,108 Northern Ireland supporters who turned out to witness it.

That's not to say there weren't moments to enjoy like George Saville and Josh Magennis laughing their socks off when Kevin Malgot headed in a comical own goal to give Northern Ireland the lead just before half-time.

There was also the immense pride evident in captain Corry Evans leading the team out for the first time on home turf, Kyle Lafferty, fresh from his move to Norwegian side Sarpsborg, delivering an energetic display on the left flank and Gavin Whyte's lively form down the right.

Then there were senior international debuts for Cardiff defender Ciaron Brown, Leeds teenager Alfie McCalmont and Manchester United kid Ethan Galbraith, all promoted from the under-21 set-up, offering a glimpse at tomorrow's stars.

Linfield striker Shayne Lavery and Liam Donnelly were brought on to win their second caps, the latter's coming five years after his first. Impressive Lavery played with the drive he has shown in a blue shirt this season.

So plenty of positives for O'Neill including a clean sheet with Tom Flanagan, Brown, Conor McLaughlin and Shane Ferguson solid in defence.

The last time Northern Ireland met Luxembourg of course things were different. Back in 2013 in O'Neill's first campaign in charge his side lost 3-2 to Luxembourg in a World Cup qualifier.

It was a humiliation and led to the manager describing it as the most painful loss in his career.

He also revealed it proved to be a turning point. In the aftermath O'Neill asked the players some serious questions about what they wanted from the international scene. Together they have been coming up with the right answers ever since.

From the current squad Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Niall McGinn and Ferguson all started in Luxembourg with Corry Evans, Michael McGovern and Magennis unused substitutes.

In the following campaign Northern Ireland qualified for the Euro 2016 finals - the nation's first major tournament in three decades.

O'Neill's side were desperately unfortunate to lose in the 2018 World Cup play-offs and it's been so far, so good in the latest batch of qualifiers.

Northern Ireland have won four games out of four in their Euro 2020 group against Belarus and Estonia and are now ready to go toe-to-toe with Germany and Holland for the top two spots.

It's been a journey largely paved in gold and yet the best could still be to come. If O'Neill and his side reach next year's Euro finals from a group including two of the best teams in the world it will be their greatest achievement of all.

After the boss and players watch the monumental Germany v Holland clash on TV, all roads will lead to Windsor for what could be a manic, magical Monday. There is no fear in O'Neill's team. They are relishing the challenge. They want this one and are ready to produce something special. It promises to be quite a night.

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