Football/Soccer

Michael O'Neill and players hoping this isn't end for them and Northern Ireland

What will the future hold for Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill after tonight's World Cup play-off second leg in Switzerland?

FINISHING was the start of what Michael O'Neill talked about ahead of this second leg, but it could bring the end of the Northern Ireland road for him and several players.

Aaron Hughes has already turned 38, Gareth McAuley will reach that milestone early next month, and Roy Carroll is 40, albeit the goalkeeper has declared that he will never retire from international football.

Yet that trio are hardly likely to be involved for the new Uefa Nations League next year if there's no World Cup place to lure them, while other thirty-somethings could also consider their international future.

Skipper Steven Davis is a model of consistency, although O'Neill revealed that he had an injury scare in training ahead of winning his 100th cap last Thursday – and the Southampton midfielder will be 33 on New Year's Day 2018. Left-back Chris Brunt is 33 next month.

O'Neill himself has been strongly linked with the vacant international manager's job in Scotland, where he lives.

Tonight's match is massive – it's not just the World Cup dream on the line, it's potentially the last of a few Northern Ireland careers.

Still, the bigger dream hasn't died yet.

O'Neill took solace from the finishing stages of the first leg, although he accepted that the team needs to create better chances to be finished:

"We finished better than we started," he pointed out. "Listen, they are a good team, we knew that from the start, they moved the ball the way we expected them to move the ball and it took us a little while in some areas of the pitch to get going…

"I think on Thursday, where we let ourselves down a little was our opportunities in the final third, whether it was set pieces or even throw-ins which give us the opportunity to get men forward. Things that we had worked on we didn't really do that particularly well on Thursday night and that's unlike us and something we will have to improve on.

"I thought we finished stronger than they did, albeit we were stretched a little bit with what we had to bring off the bench. We just have to use what happened in the game as motivation for the second leg."

Yet O'Neill is very conscious that a second Swiss goal in the tie would cause NI serious problems. The visitors need to score, but they also need to be cautious about conceding again:

"We have to open up [tonight] but we have to be careful not to put ourselves in a difficult position.

"Switzerland are in a very strong position but a lot of expectation comes with that. We can't go kamikaze, we have to respect the quality of the opponent.

"If the tie stays 0-0 in Basel, we're in the game and we have a capability of getting an away goal and then we would have to see how they would react to that."

The boss accepted that his side had under-performed in the first leg, but he argued that many didn't appreciate quite how good Switzerland are;

"We were playing against a good team, a team that's been ranked in the top 10 in the world, a team that's been in the last 16 of the World Cup, the last 16 of the European Championships. I think when the draw came out, people were slightly unrealistic in terms of the quality of the opposition.

"I know they've just dropped out of the top 10 [in the Fifa rankings] to 11 but they were in the top 10 for a very long time. We knew how the game would be.

"We were playing against top players there, players from the Bundesliga, Serie A, English Premier League. Our players dug in, they were under a lot of pressure at times, particularly in the first half but they dug in and got to half-time at 0-0, and I think second half our performance was a lot better.

"We were pushed back by a very good team. The left-back plays for AC Milan and the right-back plays for Juventus, we're playing against a top team which has done amazingly well and yet we're still here, we're still fighting and we'll give it everything.

"On Thursday, the level of our performance could have been higher, but the players are keen to address that - I don't think they're short on confidence or short on belief."

O'Neill will have to make at least one change, with midfielder Corry Evans suspended, and George Saville is favoured to get his first senior start, while the manager admitted he was keen to let Jamie Ward line out last Thursday:

"George has come from nowhere and any time we have put him on the pitch he has done very well, so he's knocking on the door to start, there's no doubt about that.

"Jamie Ward was one who, in all honesty, I probably would have liked to have started on Thursday night, he just doesn't have enough minutes, he'd only played 40 minutes this season.

"We had an injury scare with Steven [Davis] in training on Wednesday, so we weren't in a position to start with Jamie really but having seen what he gave us on Thursday night, he certainly comes into my thinking to start."

Despite the negative reaction to the penalty award, and Swiss centre half Fabian Schar only getting a yellow card for a bad early foul on Stuart Dallas, O'Neill turned those debatable decisions in a positive motivation:

"The players will have that, this is a huge scenario for us, to be 180 and now 90 minutes away from a World Cup finals tournament, the motivation will be there.

"They feel aggrieved, there's no doubt, there was anger in the dressing room, there was anger on the pitch when you see the reaction of Steven and Jonny [Evans] to a decision like that.

"They play all their international careers to get a chance to go to a World Cup and...a decision like that could ultimately be the thing that takes it away from you, it's very hard to deal with.

"But, we're at a stage now, it hasn't happened after the two legs, it's happened after the first leg and we have to address that. The players will be right [tonight].

"What's the point in me shouting at the referee? The decision is made, there's no point."

The approach tonight will be controlled all-out effort, concluded O'Neill: "I'll ask my players to give everything, and they will do it. They'll empty the tank.

"I thought they did it on Thursday night, we didn't have a single challenge where our players were thinking 'I might get booked and miss the second game', not at all.

"But we can't throw caution to the wind and be two goals down by half-time, totally. The game's tight, we're still in the game, we have to find a way to get ourselves level - and see what happens after that".

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