Belfast Telegraph

Time to land a knockout blow, says Michael O'Neill

Watching brief: Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill takes training in Tallinn last night
Watching brief: Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill takes training in Tallinn last night

By Paul Ferguson

Upbeat Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill has set his players the target of securing 'knockout football' with victory in the first of two must-win games in Tallinn tonight (5pm).

He has told his players that to have any chance of qualifying for the Euro 2020 finals from Group C, they must claim maximum points against Estonia here and Belarus on Tuesday before they clash in home and away fixtures with European heavyweights Germany and Holland in the autumn.

Having already beaten both sides at Windsor Park, O'Neill believes a repeat on the road will then set up a shoot-out with the Dutch and Germans for the right to play at the Euro 2020 finals across Europe.

"If we can get similar results as we had in the first round of fixtures, we essentially go into a group of three and it's almost like a knockout scenario in the sense of a two-legged affair with the Netherlands and Germany," said O'Neill, who took Northern Ireland's final training session at the A Le Coq Arena last night.

"That in itself is a huge task, but it's one we would like to meet head on and experience. We have to try and make the assumption that neither Germany nor Holland will drop points against Estonia and Belarus as well, that's part of it.

"But we're not looking too far ahead, other than the fact we have to do everything possible to win this game first of all."

Northern Ireland comfortably defeated Estonia 2-0 in Belfast three months ago but O'Neill insists he will demand his players treat this game as if they were playing one of Europe's superpowers.

"We're preparing to play Estonia and Belarus with the same preparation and intensity that we'll have to play Germany and Holland," O'Neill stressed.

"We're not in any way disrespectful to the two nations. It's the same way Belarus and Estonia will look at us and say they've more chance of beating Northern Ireland than Germany.

"All our focus is on Estonia and making sure we win the game."

The Northern Ireland players will be cheered on by 1,100 members of the Green and White Army tonight with many of them then travelling on to Borisov for Tuesday evening's clash with Belarus.

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