Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v San Marino: There's no place like home for O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill has stressed the importance of Northern Ireland having another successful qualifying campaign at Windsor Park if they are to achieve their dream of reaching the World Cup in Russia.

On Saturday, O'Neill's men, having drawn their opening 2018 World Cup qualifier in the Czech Republic last month, will make their first appearance at home since the Euro 2016 finals in France.

The manager and players are guaranteed a welcome fit for the Kings of Lyon with the Green and White Army turning up expecting to see their heroes roll over minnows San Marino with the minimum of fuss.

O'Neill wants to put down a marker against San Marino and show the rest of Group C that Windsor will be a fortress again. It was that and more in the Euro 2016 qualifiers with Northern Ireland defeating the Faroe Islands, Finland and Greece on their own soil and drawing with Romania and Hungary.

In an unbeatable run in Belfast, captain Steven Davis and his team-mates picked up 11 points out of 15, more than half of their overall tally.

While away victories in Hungary, Greece and the Faroes were crucial, O'Neill felt his team's performances at Windsor were the key factor in qualification with Kyle Lafferty, lifted by the incredible home support, netting four times at the redeveloping stadium.

Contrast that with what happened in the previous campaign and O'Neill's first as an international manager.

Out of their five home games in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, Northern Ireland only won once - shocking Fabio Capello's Russia 1-0 with Martin Paterson scoring the winning goal.

That was the only highlight at Windsor during a disappointing series of matches which saw losses against Israel and a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal, and embarrassing draws with Luxembourg and Azerbaijan - who were actually on course for full points only for David Healy to strike his 36th and final international goal in injury time.

Picking up just five points from those five matches was not on O'Neill's agenda as Northern Ireland finished second bottom of their group.

He will have the chance to take revenge on Azerbaijan at Windsor next month when they are in town, with World champions Germany, the Czech Republic and Norway to come next year.

"We haven't lost at home since that night against Portugal in 2013 and we want to keep that record intact," said O'Neill, proud of an eight-match unbeaten run in Belfast.

"You cannot have a good campaign and drop points at home.

"Before we played our first match of this campaign, at our training camp in Austria we had a good meeting with the players and told them where we believed we had to deliver points and at home was a big factor in that.

"Getting as many points on the board here against San Marino, Azerbaijan and Norway would set us up for the Czech Republic and Germany games to come.

"In my first campaign we struggled for results at Windsor Park.

"We should have picked up more points then and, in the second campaign, we showed what could be achieved by going unbeaten in Belfast.

"The fans really got behind us in the Euro 2016 qualifiers and I'm sure they will do the same this time around, starting in the San Marino match.

"Our plan is to get a win on the board against them and set the tone for another great series of games here. It's going to be fantastic having the World Cup holders Germany at the stadium next October.

"That will be a big challenge but hopefully by then we will have put ourselves in a good position in the group."

Ahead of Saturday's game with San Marino and next Tuesday's fixture in Germany, O'Neill's men have been preparing in Dublin. Having met up with his players on Monday, O'Neill's plan was to work on tactics for the Germany clash in the early part of the week before turning his attention to San Marino, who are expected to be the whipping boys in the group.

"It won't be an easy game against San Marino, but we will enter the match believing we can win," said O'Neill.

"We will also be targeting a victory at home to Azerbaijan next month and anything we can take from Germany will be a bonus."

Belfast Telegraph


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