Our boys need to fear world's best Germany, insists Northern Ireland manager
O'Neill believes underlining Germans’ strength can help Northern Ireland maintain full focus
Northern Ireland have earned praise across the world by not respecting reputations and punching above their weight, but Michael O’Neill still wants his men to fear Germany when the World champions roll up at Windsor Park next month.
This squad may be brimming with confidence, sitting proudly in the top 20 of Fifa’s world rankings and still dreaming of making it to back-to-back major tournaments for the first time, but the Northern Ireland boss feels his men’s intensity levels mustn’t drop with a daunting challenge ahead on October 5.
O’Neill’s side have secured a top-two spot in qualifying Group C, relieving pressure for the visit of the star-studded pacesetters, but any confidence or momentum they can carry into any potential play-off showdown will be crucial.
Germany will be hunting for the point they require to seal automatic qualification for the tournament in Russia next summer, but they won’t expect a stroll in the park in south Belfast.
In their eight qualifying games Northern Ireland have only lost once — in Germany — and they share the best defensive record (two goals conceded) across all of the qualifying groups along with Joachim Low’s side.
The one problem, however, is that goal-hungry Germany have found the net 35 times — 19 more than O’Neill’s men.
But after reaching the last 16 of Euro 2016, the Northern Ireland players want another taste of tournament action, and a positive result against Germany would be as special as the great Windsor wins over Spain and England, ensuring the team was seeded for a play-off draw.
Some Northern Ireland players are so confident they’ll proudly state they don’t fear anyone at Windsor, but O’Neill says: “I think you need that fear. If you go into Germany without that fear then you’re liable to get undone and beaten, and possibly get beaten heavily.
“You only have to look at the results. Norway were beaten 6-0 and, having watched it back, six was being kind.
“We know how difficult it is. We obviously lost in Paris 1-0 and in Hanover 2-0, which were respectable results, but very, very difficult games for us.
“I want the players to have fear because it’s fear that will give them the edge to play. They understand that, despite the position we’re in, we still possibly need something to secure one of the eight best second best spots.
“So there is loads for us still to play for in this game and obviously the Norway game.
“It’s a great game for us to finish with in terms of the home campaign. To have won our four home games and not concede a goal and play Germany is a great situation for the players and they deserve this type of game to finish with.
“Providing we can get our strongest team on the pitch, barring the injuries we have, we’ll be ready to play.”
Defender Gareth McAuley has returned from injury to the squad for the final two qualifiers against Germany and Norway next month and there are call-ups for the uncapped midfield pair of Kilmarnock’s Jordan Jones and Millwall’s George Saville.
While the prospect of being seeded for a play-off draw is an exciting one, O’Neill is wary of being greedy while remaining thirsty for success.
“It’s important, but it’s very difficult,” he added. “I’ve looked at the groups hour upon hour trying to work out what could possibly happen. I’ve read some of your comments on how it could happen which was interesting for me in terms of the different potential scenarios that could happen.
“Look, we would love to be seeded, of course we’d love to be seeded, but we can’t be greedy either. We have to make sure we get there. There are so many permutations depending on how the opposition do, what level the opposition are playing, so many things outside our control.
“Obviously a result against Germany would catapult us massively in terms of ranking because they are the number one ranked team. Norway less so obviously.
“Sometimes in the ranking, which will be used in the seeded scenario, it’s outside our control a little bit, because sometimes you can win and someone beats someone beneath you and they go above you.”
O’Neill added that his side have ‘nothing to lose’ against Germany and he hopes his boys can rise to the massive challenge.
“It’s a great game for us,” he added. “It couldn’t be more difficult. As I’ve said before, I believe Germany are the best international team in the world. They are top of the rankings again and have refreshed their squad somewhat — even from the team we played earlier in the campaign there are two or three new faces and I think they are improving all the time.
“It is a massive challenge for us but we couldn’t have the game at a better time. We have secured second place and it is a game in which we have nothing to lose and we will approach it that way. We obviously want to make sure we will do as well as possible and try and take something from the game, but Germany come to Windsor knowing they need something to take first place, and I’m sure they will approach it with that in mind.
“We’ll be up against a strong German team, and it will be as big a test as we can have at this moment in time in world football.”
Northern Ireland squad
Goalkeepers: McGovern (Norwich City), Mannus (St Johnstone), Carroll (Linfield);
Defenders: Hughes (Hearts), G McAuley (West Brom), Evans (West Brom), Brunt (West Brom), C McLaughlin (Millwall), Hodson (Rangers), A Thompson (Bradford City loan), D Lafferty (Sheffield United), Flanagan (Burton Albion)
Midfielders: Davis (Southampton), McGinn (Gwangju), Norwood (Fulham loan), C Evans (Blackburn), Ferguson (Millwall), Dallas Leeds), Lund (Burton Albion), Paton (St Johnstone), J Jones (Kilmarnock), G Saville (Millwall);
Strikers: K Lafferty (Hearts), Magennis (Charlton), Washington (QPR), McCartan (Bradford City)
Belfast Telegraph Digital