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Michael O’Neill knows Northern Ireland need to make the most of promising start

O’Neill’s side are in a tough Euro 2020 qualifying group.


Michael O’Neill was able to enjoy victory over Estonia on Thursday night (Niall Carson/PA)

Michael O’Neill was able to enjoy victory over Estonia on Thursday night (Niall Carson/PA)

Michael O’Neill was able to enjoy victory over Estonia on Thursday night (Niall Carson/PA)

Michael O’Neill was not getting carried away after his Northern Ireland side beat Estonia 2-0 at Windsor Park to end their long wait for a competitive victory.

Second-half goals from Niall McGinn and Steven Davis, the latter from the penalty spot, gave Northern Ireland the start they needed in a tough Euro 2020 qualifying group which has paired them with Holland and Germany.

They will now hope to make it six points from six when they face Belarus on Sunday, but O’Neill was clear from the outset that was the minimum requirement if they are to make headway in this campaign.

“It’s a good win for us,” he said.

“We know the significance of getting off to a good start. It gives us everything going into the second game. Belarus is a game we look forward to off the back of a good three points.

“We set ourselves a target of six points from the first two games and we’ve given ourselves the opportunity to do that.”

This was Northern Ireland’s first competitive win since they beat the Czech Republic 2-0 in September 2017, but there were no rowdy celebrations after they saw off a team ranked 60 places below them.

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“They’re delighted to win the game but I think they know there’s areas we can improve on,” O’Neill said of his players. “We’re not celebrating or ecstatic in there. This was a game we expected to win.”

For the first 55 minutes, Northern Ireland looked like making hard work of it.

In a repeat of their ill-fated Nations League campaign of last year, they dominated possession but carved out only a handful of chances – the best of them spurned by Paddy McNair who inexplicably headed over from point-blank range.

Estonia had come to defend, using the towering height of their defenders to frustrate Northern Ireland, who relied on their wingers to create chances.

It was McGinn, a lively presence down the right throughout, who broke the deadlock with a powerful strike from Kyle Lafferty’s lay-off, the 31-year-old’s first Windsor Park goal.

“He’s in a good little vein of form,” O’Neill said. “He scored on his last two games for Aberdeen and that was in my mind when I decided to start him.

“He is one of those players who when he’s in that confident vein of form it’s the right time to use him.

“It was a big goal for him. When you look at Niall’s goals at international level they’ve all been important goals, tonight was another one of those.”

Captain Davis got the second from the spot after a high tackle on George Saville by Karol Mets, sending his penalty down the middle to allow Windsor Park to relax and enjoy the last 15 minutes.

Estonia could have few complaints.

“I think it was a fair result,” manager Martin Reim said. “The home team was better. There were some stupid mistakes.

“We knew there were going to be a lot of crosses and that was OK because we have lots of big guys in the centre.

“That wasn’t our biggest problem. I think the problem was when we won the ball we could not find good passes.”

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