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Sunday Life

O'Neill sends warning to Northern Ireland youngsters: We won't throw caps around like confetti

Today, Estadio Nacional Kick-off 6.00pm

Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill

By Paul Ferguson

No-nonsense Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill has warned his young guns that he is no mood to throw international caps around like confetti during today's match with Costa Rica.

O'Neill handed three Northern Ireland under-21 players - Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Jordan Thompson and Shayne Lavery - their senior debuts from the bench in last Tuesday's scoreless draw amid soaring temperatures in Panama.

But O'Neill accepts Costa Rica, World Cup quarter-finalists four years ago in Brazil, provide a much tougher assignment for Northern Ireland today, especially if Real Madrid's Champions League-winning goalkeeper Kaylor Navas starts between the sticks for Los Ticos and well-known players to British football Bryan Ruiz (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Gamboa (Celtic), Bryan Oviedo (Sunderland) and Joel Campbell (Real Betis) all play.

Therefore, he may not be in a position to make as many changes.

O'Neill has already ruled out starting any of his young players at the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica, preferring to go with experience.

"We'll not look to experiment too much - there will be one or two tweaks," says boss O'Neill, who saw Crusaders winger Gavin Whyte limp out of training early yesterday with a knock that is not expected to rule him out of this evening's game.

"If we do use them (young players), they will be drip-fed into the game as the game progresses rather than throwing one in from the start.

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"We don't want to just give the guys game-time for the sake of it - they have to earn it. We've brought them with that intention in mind. There's not many who've had the season that says, 'You must be picking them'. We're hoping that this is the first step of many. Having had a taste of it just gives them that wee incentive to go back to their clubs and really push.

O'Neill will once again employ a back three of Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Aaron Hughes, ahead of goalkeeper Trevor Carson, with Jonny Evans acting as the holding midfielder, just behind his brother Corry and Paddy McNair in the centre of midfield. Charlton striker Josh Magennis and Burton's Liam Boyce will lead Northern Ireland's attack.

O'Neill may tinker with the wingbacks Stuart Dallas and Shane Ferguson if Conor McLaughlin, who missed the opening game of this two-match tour with injury, is fit to play and Rangers' Lee Hodson is also another option down the flanks.

"There's aspects of that system that make us look really solid, which I like," continues O'Neill.

"But I think we have to learn to become a better attacking team with that as well. Overall I've been pleased, really pleased, with how the midfield three played - Jonny's been great, played in there, Corry and Paddy really good as well."

The match has an unusual kick-off time of 11am local time and this has already disrupted Northern Ireland's final preparations for the game along with the players being told they must be down for breakfast at 7.30am.

But with the stadium just a goal kick away from the team hotel in the Sabina area of San Jose, the players can save time on long coach journeys and just walk to the ground.

"Normally we would always do our set pieces, fine tune them all on the morning of the game," concedes the former Newcastle United midfielder.

"We're not able to do that. We had to do them in training in the stadium yesterday. We won't complicate anything in that respect.

"But it is an interesting one for the players. The bigger players will be used to it - maybe the lads who play in Scotland who have 12.30 kick-offs. If you're not in that environment and you're not used to those kick-offs, it is a bit different. They will have to be up ready to eat from 7.30 to eight o'clock onwards. Pre-match is typically three, three-and-a-half hours out from the game. That's when they'll have to get up and eat. They'll have to get themselves wide awake and it's a walk across to the stadium. This game will take the players physically to the limit as well."

Costa Rica, since their heroics four years ago in Brazil, have produced inconsistent results and during the last nine months have lost to Tunisia, Hungary, Spain and Panama. Los Ticos did beat Scotland 1-0 in Alex McLeish's first game back in charge of the Tartan Army at Hampden last March. After today's match they will travel to Europe to take on England and Belgium before landing in Russia to challenge Serbia, Brazil and Switzerland in Group E.

"We're expecting them to play a 3-4-3 essentially," adds O'Neill. "It will be quite attacking how they play. They have got players, I think, in the attacking end of the pitch of higher quality than Panama had.

"We will be tested from that point of view. They'll carry more of an attacking threat than Panama did as I viewed Panama as more of an athletic team.

"The conditions in Panama were difficult for us. They are a little cooler here, which is great, so we have to try and impose ourselves on the game - we have to try and be more of an attacking threat as well.

"I think Costa Rica will add a little bit of class in certain areas of the pitch. That's going to be a good test for us and a tough, tough game."

Our coverage of Northern Ireland's tour to play Panama and Costa Rica is brought to you in conjunction with BetMcLean.

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