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O'Neill eyes ultimate goal

Michael O'Neill accepts he is fighting an uphill battle in his attempt to give Northern Ireland fans the World Cup appearance they crave.

The most feted generation of Northern Ireland players, led by manager Billy Bingham, qualified for the 1982 and 1986 tournaments - a feat that has not been repeated in the intervening years. A hugely disappointing Euro 2012 qualifying campaign led to Nigel Worthington's departure as boss and O'Neill's arrival from Shamrock Rovers.

But the route to a major championship remains as tough as ever for a nation with limited playing resources. O'Neill said: "Everyone in Northern Ireland obviously remembers '82 and '86 and those players are still lauded to this day. It would be nice, I think, for a new generation of players to get to experience that."

He added: "We've had a lot of players who have amassed a lot of caps but haven't had the benefit of ever getting to a tournament.

"But qualification now is becoming more and more difficult all the time for the smaller countries. It's obviously the ultimate goal. It's a long-term goal. But second-place position only gets into a play-off and that in itself would be a very difficult game."

Northern Ireland are in Group F of the World Cup 2014 draw alongside Russia, Portugal, Israel, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg - with the first two of those sides heavy favourites to top the standings.

Northern Ireland start their campaign with arguably their toughest fixture, Russia away on September 7 and O'Neill is under no illusions about the challenges ahead.

"We have a very difficult group. I saw Russia and Portugal at the Euros and I was extremely impressed with Portugal throughout the tournament," he said. "They have had very little change to their squad and there's no change to the coach, so I think that'll be a massive hurdle for us.

"Russia's a little bit different because of, obviously, the change in coach (to Fabio Capello). They were an older side at the Euros and I think there'll be some changes in terms of personnel there.

"But, again, they are a very difficult opponent for us and we open up away in Moscow. We could have had an easier fixture if I'm honest but we have to play them at some point so it may work to our benefit in the opening game."

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