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O'Neill: We will thrive under the weight of expectation



No bother: Michael O’Neill believes expectation is a good thing after years of hoping for the best. Photo: William Cherry/Presseye

No bother: Michael O’Neill believes expectation is a good thing after years of hoping for the best. Photo: William Cherry/Presseye

©William Cherry / Presseye

No bother: Michael O’Neill believes expectation is a good thing after years of hoping for the best. Photo: William Cherry/Presseye

Michael O'Neill is confident his Northern Ireland players can handle the great expectations of the Green and White Army in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and the Czech Republic.

Should results go to plan in the double header, Northern Ireland will secure second place in Group C behind World champions Germany with two games remaining.

And, in a sign of how far the team has come under O'Neill, it's difficult to find a Northern Ireland supporter who does not believe that runners-up spot won't be decided come Monday evening when the Czechs are the visitors to Windsor Park.

If the Czechs arrive having lost to Germany on Friday and Northern Ireland win in San Marino on the same night, a draw in Belfast will be enough for O'Neill's men.

The Northern Ireland boss correctly points out that there will still be work to do, with positive results required in their final games against Germany and Norway, as the worst of the runners-up from the nine groups miss out on the play-offs, but clinching second with something to spare would still rank as a notable achievement.

Northern Ireland expects.

And after the experience of reaching the Euro 2016 finals in France, O'Neill has no fears about how his team will handle the crucial next five days.

"Expectation is a good thing. There was a time there was no expectation so it is important we build on that and deal with it," said O'Neill, who has become such an inspirational and influential figure in Northern Ireland sport.

"Our experiences in qualifying for France will help us with that. When you're a small nation and you haven't qualified for a major tournament in so long, it was important for us to go through the experience of doing that."

Rather than just being content with playing in a major tournament for the first time in 30 years, the Northern Ireland players are determined that the Euros will not be a one-off for them.

Captain Steven Davis and his team-mates want more and know back-to-back qualifications would be a first for the nation.

O'Neill would fancy a bit of history making himself. He feels there is a new found maturity in the squad backed up by results in the World Cup games to date. Six played, won four, drawn one with just one defeat at the hands of Germany, who are the only side to have scored against Northern Ireland in Group C.

"We've handled this group really well. To be in the position we're in and to have only conceded in one game against the Germans, we have been in control and managed the games so well," said O'Neill.

"We've had an assurance about us that we maybe didn't have as much in the qualification for France, so I think that's where the team has matured.

"It's a great position to be in and the players deserve the credit for that. I asked them to make sure they're in the mix come September and we are.

"Speaking to the players, there is a sense they don't want this to slip away from them."

O'Neill enters the double header minus some big performers, in particular Gareth McAuley, such a force at both ends of the pitch. Also injured are Craig Cathcart, Liam Boyce and Jamie Ward.

All four would have seen action against San Marino and the Czechs.

The good news is that defensively and in attack, Northern Ireland should be well enough covered, certainly to overcome San Marino with a fair degree of comfort.

If their performance at Windsor Park earlier in the campaign is anything to go by, when they lost 4-0, it would be a major shock if San Marino breached Michael McGovern's goal on Friday night, while there is plenty of firepower at O'Neill's disposal to put them away despite Boyce and Ward being absent.

Strikers Josh Magennis and Conor Washington have started their domestic season well with Charlton Athletic and QPR respectively, and Kyle Lafferty is back on the goalscoring trail and starting on a regular basis for new club Hearts.

O'Neill said: "Kyle can be a big player for us in our remaining World Cup qualifiers as we have seen in the past.

"He is at a club now where he is playing and he seems in a good place, he seems happy and is enjoying his football. We need that.

"I'm really pleased for Kyle. To have him fit and playing is a great boost to the squad and nobody is happier about that than me.

"We know Kyle is very important to us. We'll need big performances from the front players in the next two games and when we have needed that in the past, Kyle has tended to deliver.

"He is a very experienced international and if you look at his goals to games ratio with 20 goals in 62 games, that is good and I'm sure he will be looking to improve on that."

  • San Marino v N Ireland, World Cup Group C qualifier: Serravalle, Friday, 7.45pm

Belfast Telegraph