Football/Soccer

Defeat by Bosnia would not be disaster - Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Kenny Archer in Sarajevo

Uefa Nations League Group B3: Bosnia-Herzegovina v Northern Ireland (Stadium Grbavica, Sarajevo, 7.45pm Irish time)

THERE’S a time and a place to worry - but it’s not here and now about the prospect of relegation from the second tier of the Nations League, insists Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill.

Asked by a Bosnian journalist how the Northern Ireland public feel about possibly dropping down, the boss quipped: “I don’t know because I’m in Bosnia at the moment!

“I don’t think we have enormous pressure in this competition,” added O’Neill. “I don’t think any country fully understands the implications of promotion or relegation.

“If two years from now we’re in League C it wouldn’t be a disaster for us. The main objective for us is to try to qualify for Euro 2020.

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“Obviously if we’re in third position in this group it would rule out the possibility of a play-off position, but there are 20 places to play for in Euro 2020 from March.

“So we’re not playing with any incredible pressure. We’re playing with a desire to improve the team and I think people are seeing that.

“We’re a very small nation with a very small pool of players to choose from, but we’re competing at a very, very good level of European football. Our priority is to continue to compete at this level and develop the team.”

Bosnia have about twice as large a population but their coach Robert Prosinecki, acknowledged that reaching the top tier would be a massive achievement for his side.

The only numbers that really matter, though, are on the scoreboard, and so far Bosnia have been ruthlessly efficient, making the most of limited opportunities to win 2-1 in Belfast and 1-0 at home to Austria.

In contrast, Northern Ireland have scored only one goal from 34 efforts in their two games so far. That may exasperate O’Neill, but he knows there’s an easy solution – it’s just hard to make it happen:

“There’s no magic formula we need someone to stick the ball in the net, it’s as simple as that.

“We’re challenged a little bit at the moment with the striker situation. For a lot of our strikers this is a step up, they’re still getting used to international football.

“They’re stepping up from League One and Championship football. There’s not a great track record there in terms of scoring international goals.

“I don’t think there’s any real way that we address it. The system of play [away from home] is consistent with what we’ve done, and that will continue to be so.

“We need goals from other areas of the pitch and we need to be a little bit more decisive and clinical in terms of set-pieces away from home. Obviously we’re very strong in that area at home.”

O’Neill was more positive about the performance in Vienna than some players were, and he offered this explanation for that difference of opinion:

“I think my job is to be somewhat more balanced. You’re speaking to the players 15-20 minutes after the game and they’re maybe somewhat more emotional and there’s a sense of disappointment there.

“The turnaround time is very limited but we’ve come here and had a really good meeting with the players and talked about the areas where we need to improve…

“There is no reason for the players to be particularly negative given the last two results…

“For me, I’m comfortable with where the team is at the minute. I feel we should have got more than we have in the Nations League.

“The format of the competition means there is no room for error, and unfortunately we’ve been punished for that.

“Bosnia will look at three points to almost secure the group for themselves. Our objective is to win our last two games to keep ourselves alive in the group and that’s what we’ll try to do”.

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