Belfast Telegraph

We will fear no-one in play-off, warns defiant boss O'Neill

Big guns Italy or Portugal on radar after defeat in Norway

By Paul Ferguson

Defiant Michael O'Neill insists his history-making Northern Ireland team will not fear any opponent in the 2018 World Cup play-offs after their place in next month's two-legged shootout was confirmed last night - despite a 1-0 defeat in Norway.

Northern Ireland are now just 180 minutes away from reaching Russia and qualifying for their first World Cup finals in 31 years.

O'Neill's men found out just under an hour before kick-off in Oslo that they were assured of a play-off spot after Scotland's 2-2 draw with Slovenia in Ljubljana meant Northern Ireland would definitely be one of the eighth best second placed finishers

Northern Ireland will discover who they meet next month in the Tuesday, October 17 draw but it's highly unlikely they'll be seeded after Chris Brunt's unfortunate own goal condemned the men in white to their second defeat in a matter of four days.

European champions Portugal or four times World Cup winners Italy are among the most likely opponents.

But boss O'Neill said: "I don't think you can have a fear. We have played Germany and acquitted ourselves well. The players know what the challenge will be but there's no fear."

Northern Ireland are currently ranked 20th in the world but, when the Fifa listings are released 24 hours before the play-off draw, it will likely reveal O'Neill's men are not seeded - as they will lose points following a defeat to Norway, who are 73rd in the world.

That means Northern Ireland could face European heavyweights Portugal or Italy, but O'Neill believes his team's form over the last few years proves that they will be a major force against any opponent.

O'Neill said: "I'm not sure being a seeded team will be a huge advantage, we will have to see the outcome of the games over the next 48 hours.

"I think we can be a threat, we know what we are and we're a difficult team to beat. There's no huge stars in my squad, we've made up of players who predominantly play their football outside the top divisions.

"They are well organised, play for each other and the shirt. We will make life, and aim to make life, extremely difficult for whoever we get in the play-offs and know we are capable of doing that. We have played some big nations in the past and have experience of doing that."

O'Neill admitted the fact Northern Ireland knew they were in the play-offs before the game kicked off in Oslo changed the usual mindset of the players.

"It would have been a different game had we not had the result from Slovenia," stressed O'Neill.

"As it happens a 1-0 defeat would have meant that we would have still qualified and been above Greece, for example, in the table for second-placed teams. To have seven clean sheets and have only conceded to Germany, it would have been nice to preserve that record. But we can look forward to November now and hopefully the draw is kind to us. For a country of our size we have to enjoy this."

Norway coach Lars Lagerback said: "I would never count out Northern Ireland, I think they have a fair chance of beating anyone."

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