Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland boss aiming to blend young with old against South Korea

Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill is looking forward to a good test from South Korea at Windsor Park.

Northern Ireland v Korea Republic (2pm today, Windsor Park, international friendly)

YOUNG sharp-shooters up front and old heads at the back is the classic combination that Michael O'Neill hopes will return Northern Ireland to winning ways today.

Obviously an increasingly endangered international friendly matters as little as ever, especially as the hosts aren't going to the World Cup, but the manager is still keen to build for the future.

Attackers Paul Smyth and Shayne Lavery have been called up from the U21s, even though they have another qualifier against Iceland on Monday, but O'Neill pointed out that Smyth is suspended for that.

The former Linfield forward, now at QPR, has been on O'Neill's radar for some time, having been brought over to the Euro 2016 training base:

"I've watched Paul since he made his debut at QPR. I watched him recently against Nottingham Forest and we saw him in at least one or two other games, so we have kept an eye on him consistently.

"We know Paul anyway; we had him with us in France and we've had him up with the senior squad before."

Everton's Lavery, who scored in Thursday night's 5-3 U21 qualifier defeat by Spain, is someone who has bloomed a little late, in footballing terms, but has caught O'Neill's eye:

"Shayne is a player I've known since he came in to the Under-17s. He's an interesting player because he's come late.

"He didn't come in at 15; he suddenly arrived at Under-17s and I thought he was excellent when I saw him at the Under-17 tournament.

"He's had a little bit of a difficult year at Everton with his progression, and injuries have held him back a bit, but he is a player we have great hopes for.

"I think he has all the attributes to be a really good Northern Ireland centre-forward.

"His work-rate is terrific. The [Spain U21] centre-back [Mikel Merino] plays for Newcastle in the Premier League.

"Shayne is 19 and not that close to Everton's first-team at this minute in time but he has that willingness to work for the team and he has great quality as well."

At the other end of the experience scale, O'Neill is happy to still have 38-year-old defenders Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes around:

"Obviously, it's a huge boost to have Gareth and Aaron available to us. The likes of Chris [Brunt] is obviously deciding his future; it would be a great boost for us if he decided to play on."

In Brunt's absence, though, 20-year-old Norwich City left-back Jamal Lewis is set to start, especially as he was omitted from the U21 qualifier.

Performances and preparation for the Euro 2020 qualifiers next year matter more than results for O'Neill this year, he indicated: "We have nine games between now and next March and they are vital going into the next qualifying campaign…

"Look, there may be times in these next nine games where we have little setbacks, but the key is to get experience into the team."

Moving on from the controversial World Cup play-off loss is also on the agenda: "We are looking for a good performance and to get the disappointment of Switzerland out of the way. We will play in front of a good crowd against a very strong team.

"They are not a European team and they have a lot of good attributes. They are going to Russia, they finished second in their group behind Iran and they have a squad of players with a massive bonus in front of them so they will be highly motivated for this game.

"They will look at selection options for the World Cup but they are technically gifted players and it's all part of the learning curve for our players, particularly the new ones to the squad."

The best-known players among today's opposition are Tottenham's Son Heung-Min and Ki Sung-Heung of Swansea City.

The latter's father brought Niall McGinn to Korea as director of football at Gwangju FC, but O'Neill chuckled when asked if the Donaghmore man had brought back great insight from his short-lived spell there last year:

"We hoped Niall would give us some information, but he gave us absolutely nothing.

"He was useless – absolutely useless! So I don't know what Niall did for six months in South Korea – but it wasn't football related!"

O'Neill, though, remains in no doubt about the benefits facing those South Korean stars can bring:

"Four years ago we went with a very inexperienced squad to South America and we were playing against the likes of Cavani, Forlan, Alexis Sanchez, Vidal.

"I'm delighted Son is here and is going to be playing. I think Ki is probably an under-rated player, possibly because Swansea are not one of the bigger clubs in the Premier League. I saw Ki play quite a lot at Celtic so it's no surprise to me to see how well he's done in the Premier League.

"If you're going to play at international level you have to bring your game up and try and compete at this level."

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