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Football/Soccer

Michael O'Neill urges caution ahead of qualifier in Azerbaijan

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill faces the press ahead of Friday's clash with New Zealand
Pádraig Ó Meiscill

MANAGER Michael O’Neill has warned that the North’s World Cup qualifying campaign could still “fall flat on its face” ahead of tonight’s friendly with New Zealand at Windsor Park.

After five games in the race to make it to next year’s World Cup in Russia, Northern Ireland sit in second place in Group C, five points behind leaders Germany and two ahead of the Czech Republic in third. With an away game against Azerbaijan to come next Saturday night, the North are in pole position for a play-off spot, but O’Neill is refusing to get ahead of himself.

“I’m not even thinking that far ahead, we’re five games in, it could fall flat on its face,” O’Neill said at yesterday’s Windsor Park press conference.

“We just concentrate on Baku [capital of Azerbaijan], we concentrate on the opposition, we’re pleased with where we’re at but, equally, Azerbaijan will be thinking, ‘if we beat them here, we’re going to go level with them with five games to go’, so they’ve everything to play for as well.

“It’s way too early to be thinking about what it means or where it ranks or anything like that there. We’re nowhere near that stage yet, to be honest.”

However the former Shamrock Rovers boss is delighted with the progress he has seen in his squad since their appearance at last summer’s European Championships in France.

“The thing for me is that we’ve had players missing in this campaign that, if they’d been missing in the past, we maybe wouldn’t have been able to get the results,” he added.

“I think that’s partly because players are now stepping up better. I think also because of the time we spent together in France. The teams who qualify for every major tournament, they get 40-45 days together every two years, that’s a huge amount of time to work with your players. We don’t get that, so the time that we spent in France has been invaluable to us in terms of where the players are, in terms of changing systems, how we play tactically.

“Also, more importantly, of how they are as a group. That’s huge. You can just see that they’re happy being around each other, which is a really positive thing and they enjoy being together as a group and that’s the biggest thing for me. That’s what being in a tournament gives you. Yes, it gives you the experience of big games and the hype around it but, in terms of the inner workings of the team, that time is priceless.”

Before the North fly out for a warm weather training camp in Turkey ahead of next Saturday’s qualifier, there is the matter of tonight’s friendly with New Zealand. While O’Neill will be without Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart for the game with the All Whites, he is happy to be able to give younger players an opportunity.

“There’s opportunities there,” O’Neill said of the starting 11.

“It’s going to be a chance for the likes of Tom Flanagan to come in, the players who have played, the likes of Chris Brunt, Davo [Steven Davis], they don’t need to play 90 minutes in these types of games.

“I have a plan in place in terms of six substitutions; it never ever really goes like that for one reason or another, but hopefully it will and we’ll get the right amount of minutes, but the key for me is that, if you look at some of our players, the last competitive game they played was April 30.

“If you look at the Championship players, the last competitive game was May 6, so those players need to play as long as possible and stay on the pitch as long as possible, with a view to them being involved in the game in Baku.”

O’Neill doesn’t hold back when it comes to the potential he firmly believes he has in his squad, but he says it is up to the players to fulfil it.

“I believe we have more Premier League players in our squad than five, but they have to get there,” the Ballymena man said.

“I believe that, we need other managers to believe that. I just want them not to settle for what they’ve had, don’t settle for ‘yes, we’ve went to France’, ‘yes, it was a fantastic experience’, ‘yes, we did well’.

“What I remember from France is that we got beat by Wales and that’s what will hopefully motivate us to do everything possible to get to Russia.”

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