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Russia best team in group - O'Neill

Michael O'Neill believes Northern Ireland will have to produce the best display of his reign to get a result against Russia at Windsor Park.

O'Neill's nine matches at the helm have hardly been an unequivocal success, with five draws, four defeats and no victories to date.

But there is one standout result O'Neill can draw optimism from - a gutsy 1-1 away draw against a star-studded Portugal in October in the third match of the World Cup qualifying campaign.

The same scoreline at home to relative minnows Azerbaijan and Luxembourg sapped some of the positivity created by that performance and O'Neill has told his side that their opponents on Wednesday are an even sterner test than Cristiano Ronaldo and company.

"Russia may not have the individual players that Portugal do but they are stronger as a team and it will be massive for us to take three points," he said.

"It would be great for us to take three points off Russia, I think Russia is the strongest team in the group.

"We're under no illusions how tough a game it will be and the quality of opposition ahead of us. But I think the important thing is what we expect of ourselves, not things outside of our control."

One of the elements O'Neill has no influence over is the absence of key duo Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty.

Brunt is suspended for the match and Palermo striker Lafferty was deemed unfit to travel from Italy after picking up an Achilles tendon injury on Sunday.

With Chris Baird, David Healy and Paddy McCourt also absent from the squad as they look to find new clubs, O'Neill will have to cast his net a little wider and to less experienced individuals this time and he has challenged them to make their mark.

"To be without Kyle, Bairdy, Chris Brunt... that's a blow. They are big players for us and in terms of our starting line-up but it gives opportunities to players who have been patient," he said.

"It will be a younger team on the pitch, no doubt about that, and there's a lot of younger ones coming to play international football.

"We need the fans to create a fantastic atmosphere at home and stay with us. It will be a key opportunity for everyone and the younger ones particularly."

Huddersfield forward Martin Paterson is most likely to inherit Lafferty's lone striker role, but Will Grigg and Josh Magennis are also on hand should O'Neill fancy someone with a more greater physical presence.

Russia, meanwhile, have the chance to go top of Group F with victory, leaving Capello to remind his players not to take their opponents lightly.

"The crucial moment has come. I think that everyone realises the significance of the upcoming match, its result will really have a great impact on the final group standing," said the former England boss.

"Northern Ireland tend to play in a very compact way in defence with a great number of players. They are a physically strong, athletic team and can be very dangerous in counter attacks. That is why it is important not to lose concentration."


From Belfast Telegraph