O’Neill eager to win on the road after solid start at home
Northern Ireland have six points from six
Michael O’Neill will challenge his Northern Ireland players to replicate their Euro 2020 qualifying victories over Estonia and Belarus when they travel to face them away from home in June.
Sunday’s 2-1 win over Belarus – secured with Josh Magennis’ late goal at Windsor Park – sent Northern Ireland top of Group C by three points.
Taking six points from their opening two games at Windsor Park was always a minimum requirement if they are to keep alive hopes of beating either Holland or Germany to one of the two automatic qualification places from the group.
And O’Neill also knows they will need points on the road when Northern Ireland head to Tallinn and Borisov in the second week of June.
O’Neill has changed Northern Ireland’s approach in recent months, looking to dominate possession and build pressure rather than relying on set-pieces and counter-attacks.
It led to frustration in last year’s Nations League, when several good performances went unrewarded, but has borne fruit in the opening qualifiers.
“Maybe we won’t play identically in terms of personnel, but it will be pretty similar in terms of the shape,” O’Neill said of June’s fixtures.
“You learn about your team all the time. It’s very difficult to have that level of possession away from home, but what we have got good at away from home is finding a way to win.
“We proved that in Azerbaijan (in 2017) and other places in recent years and we’ve got to do that in June.”
Northern Ireland certainly piled on the pressure against Belarus, but for much of the second half it appeared it would go unrewarded.
Jonny Evans’ first international goal since September 2017 put them in front after 29 minutes, only for a deflected shot from Igor Stasevich to level it for Belarus three minutes later – a rare foray forward from the visitors.
Northern Ireland then spurned several chances before substitute Magennis struck with three minutes to go.
O’Neill admitted that the players available to him dictate Northern Ireland are forced to play a similar shape home and away, looking to their wingers to create chances.
Central midfielder Ollie Norwood missed this week’s games for personal reasons and O’Neill indicated he would be absent again in June, further restricting his options.
“We’re not going to score through the middle of teams,” he said. “We don’t have a number 10 in our squad.”
But the manager has been delighted with the way the players have taken to the change of approach, and is confident it gives them their best chance of advancing.
“There’s been a massive buy-in from the players and we’ve got to go out there and replicate the results,” he said.
“It’s a huge ask but we’re capable.”