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O'Neill to face old friend


Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill is preparing to do battle with a familiar face on Sunday, as an old friend attempts to derail Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 dream.

Finland are the opponents at Windsor Park, led by the Mixu Paatelainen - the man who gave O'Neill his coaching break as his number two at Cowdenbeath.

The pair have already crossed paths on the international circuit, sharing an entertaining 3-3 friendly draw in 2012, during O'Neill's early days at the helm.

There is a whole lot more riding on the follow-up, with Northern Ireland having taken nine points from a possible 12 in Group F, while their opponents face a fight to stay in contention with just four points from their four fixtures.

O'Neill admits he and Paatelainen have declined to swap advice about other teams on the road to France, but accepts the two men know each other's style "inside out".

"We're similar to players, I think. When you've played at a club with someone and then you've worked briefly with them as a coach there's obviously a relationship there.

"But we didn't spend hours on the phone or anything up to that, so the relationship hasn't changed at all. Obviously we are less inclined to discuss the opposition because he probably thinks he doesn't want to tell me things I perhaps don't know and vice versa. But we both know each other inside out and how our team will play.

"Regardless of what happens it won't affect how close we are."

O'Neill even sees a parallel between the two national sides, with both he and Paatelainen attempting to eke the best out of a small number of top-tier players, while building a strong group in support.

"I think Mixu has done a great job there and his job is quite similar to mine," he said.

"You have a limited pool of players to choose from and he has got them playing in a nice style.

"There's no doubt Finland are a good team but there is a dependence there on five or six players and the team's make-up is quite similar to mine."

Northern Ireland's current position, and the well of optimism around the squad, is in stark contrast to an underwhelming first campaign under O'Neill.

Brief glimmers of light - a battling point in Portugal, a 1-0 win over Russia - were outweighed by dismal defeats against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.

And the manager is both pleased and grateful that senior men such as captain Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley did not allow themselves to become disillusioned.

"That's the only way you can build an international team, you can't build one, unless you've got massive resources, if you can't be patient," he said.

"You need the patience of Steven, Gareth, Jonny and Brunty, who continue to come through the disappointment. They move on, but this is the reward for those players.

"Over the past 18 months I've seen a lot of change and a real progression."

The Northern Ireland match-winner in recent months has been striker Kyle Lafferty, who scored against Hungary, Greece and the Faroe Islands before being shut out in the defeat by Romania.

He has had a change of scenery since then, leaving Norwich for a loan spell with Turkish side Rizespor.

Part of his motivation for that unexpected move was a desire to get regular game time at centre forward, with the Canaries having used him predominantly in a withdrawn role.

Davis, a former Rangers team-mate of Lafferty, explained: "He just wants to go out and get regular football, and a chance to play up front.

"He's had a few experiences in other countries so I think at the time he knew it was the time to move on. He had Northern Ireland in the back of his mind, he wanted to improve his football for international level too.

"He's always going to give you 100% commitment and effort, give you everything but it's about getting him focused.

"We've seen a focused Kyle Lafferty in this campaign so far and long may it continue."