Michael O'Neill hoping Northern Ireland can strike it lucky in Rotterdam in Euro 2020 qualifier
Euro 2020 Qualifying Group C Netherlands v Northern Ireland
(tonight, 7.45pm, live on Sky Sports Main Event)
THE task is simple to state, but not easy to achieve: try to stay afloat in ‘The Tub’, as this famous stadium is nicknamed in Dutch.
Negotiating a safe passage home via the North Sea in a leaky bath might be a more achievable feat, given the quality of this Dutch side and their record in this stadium.
The Netherlands have won their last 14 matches here at ‘De Kuip’ and will be expected to extend that impressive run.
The last team to prevent a home victory here was Germany in 2005, and even that was a 2-2 draw, and in a friendly.
The 3,500 visiting fans in attendance will cling to the fact that they have never lost here, although that is one of ‘those’ stats, with only two previous visits to Rotterdam. The first, in 1965, ended goalless.
The second, in 1976, has entered the realms of fable, with the late, great George Best inspiring the visitors to a 2-2 against the team that was arguably the best in the world then, Johan Cruyff et al.
Michael O’Neill dismissed that game as “irrelevant… like talking about a game in the 18th century”, but he obviously acknowledged the quality of the current Dutch team, including the man heralded as the world’s best defender, Virgil van Dijk.
The visiting boss has made clear that defeat here would almost certainly sink Northern Ireland’s hopes of securing automatic qualification.
“We’re essentially in a play-off situation with Holland already,” he said.
“We need to get four points out of that. They have a stronger position in that play-off because they got three points off Germany.That’s how we have to approach this game and the one in Belfast [next month].
“That’s the job that is in front us, it is not an easy task by any means but we know to give ourselves a chance of automatic qualification we have to take something from the game [tonight].”
O’Neill attempted to put pressure on the hosts, who missed out on the last World Cup and Euro 2016, saying: “We’ll make it as difficult as we can for the Netherlands and by doing that, hopefully create a little bit of doubt because I think it would be a big thing for Holland if they went three tournaments without qualification, so there’s a lot of expectation of this group of players.
“With expectation comes a responsibility – for this group of players there is maybe only a small percentage who played in the last tournament in 2014. That would possibly be Daley Blind and one other.
“It is a new experience for them as well and we have to make it as uncomfortable for them as possible.”
O’Neill has certainly brought unexpected confidence to Northern Ireland on their travels, winning five and drawing one of their seven away European qualifiers in his time – the only defeat was a 2-0 defeat in Romania, a match Steven Davis missed through injury.
“We’ve found a way to get results away from home and that’s what will be required again. Whether that’s from a counter-attack, a set-piece or from possession, we’re not bothered, we’ll take it any way it comes,” O’Neill said.
The boss was keen to talk up the overall recent record, not just the good start to this qualifying group, saying: “If you look at us prior to the Germany game [the 2-0 home loss in Belfast last month], we’d played 24 qualifying games and we had a win percentage of 66 per cent, so we didn’t need those four games to get that belief.
“That belief has been built up over a period of time against a lot of good sides.
“Unfortunately the draw put us in with two of the really top sides for this qualification.”
Even so that defeat by Germany was harsh – but the Dutch are probably a better side.
Unlucky to lose 3-2 to their neighbours in Amsterdam, they recorded a rare 4-2 away win in Hamburg last month.
That, and a 4-0 win in Estonia, brought their tally to 14 goals in four matches, with former Manchester United attacker Memphis Depay leading the way with four goals.
Liverpool midfielder Gini Wijnaldum has netted three, while his club colleague and international captain Virgil van Dijk is a serious threat at set pieces.
Northern Ireland will probably have to score to have serious hope of taking a point home, but O’Neill expressed optimism in that regard.
“We need someone in terms of our front players who will rise to the occasion, but it might not be a striker who scores a goal that gives us an opportunity in the game,” he said.
“We have goals in the team in the middle of the pitch and the wide areas as well. Often in our case it’s the striker who at times has to sacrifice himself with the work he does and isn’t always the one that gets the chances.”
Still, with a reshuffled defence in the absence of injured left-back Jamal Lewis, it’s likely to be a case of manning the lifeboats tonight as the Dutch flood forward.