Northern Ireland have to beat Estonia in Euro 2020 opener
Euro 2020 qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland v Estonia (Windsor Park, 7.45pm)
NORTHERN Ireland may have 16 from ’16 but it’s harder to see them achieving their Euro 2020 vision – at least not this year.
Manager Michael O’Neill is likely to lean towards many of those dozen and more squad members who went to the last continental competition in France three years ago, but topping the group this time around would be absolutely astonishing.
The schedule has been kind to the men in green - but then it really had to be after the boot in the nethers of being drawn against both the Netherlands and, yet again, Germany.
The latter always seem to qualify and the former are resurgent, so NI know they will have to cause a shock or two to secure direct qualification by finishing in the top two of Group C.
First, though, they’ll have to avoid suffering any surprise results themselves, starting against a side currently ranked almost outside the world’s top 100.
Like Northern Ireland, Estonia were relegated after their inaugural Nations League campaign, Martin Reim’s team finishing bottom of League C2, below Finland, Hungary, and Greece.
O’Neill’s side were desperately unlucky to suffer nothing but defeats in League B, though, against Austria and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the performances explain the boss’s confidence when he says: “We’ve become a team that knows how to get results.”
That comment came in relation to teams ranked below NI, as O’Neill explained: “One thing we have become a lot better at is against the teams from pots 5 and 6 - we took 12 points from teams in those positions [in World Cup qualifying]. We’ve improved from that side of things.”
Although he urged caution – “We watched Estonia closely in the Nations League. Nobody had an easy game against them. It won’t be a straightforward game” – he also pointed to the positive experiences of recent years, particularly at home:
“We have 16 players in this squad that were part of France so there is good experience in the squad and people who have gone through the qualifying campaign and been part of the World Cup where we missed out on the play-offs. We still have a strong core of experienced players there.
“We’ve had 20 qualifying games in the last four years and a win percentage of 60 per cent. We’ve only lost one home game in that period, if you take the Switzerland play-off out it.
“There are a lot of positives to look at. The only home game we’ve lost is Germany, and I don’t think there’s any shame in that.”
Trying to progress from being a team that’s ‘hard to beat’ to one that attacks most opponents was painful process last year, at least in terms of results, but O’Neill remains optimistic about that approach too:
“There is an evolution in the team with the younger players coming. When I look at this team against the other teams, we have more legs and running power than at any time in the past. That allows us to play with a higher intensity, and that’s how we intend to approach the games.
“For me, it’s all positive. I don’t think there’s any value dwelling on the Nations League. We could have had a fantastic Nations League and we would still be in a group with Germany and Holland. The group wouldn’t change because of the Nations League.
“If you look at where we’ve come as a team, we’re a far more possession-based team than we were in previous campaigns. That’s how we want to approach the games going forward. I’m looking forward to it and I sense that in the players.”
As regards those that won’t line up tonight, striker Will Grigg went home with an ankle problem and midfielder Olly Norwood is absent for personal reasons. There are also fitness doubts over Gareth McAuley and Corry Evans (both hamstring) and Gavin Whyte (thigh), but O’Neill declared yesterday: “I know my team that will play. There were one or two decisions to make at the start of the week.”
As so often, few of his likely starters have been playing regularly recently, and only centre halves Jonny Evans (Leicester City) and Craig Cathcart (Watford) in the English top flight.
“It’s difficult when you can’t judge players on club situations,” admits O’Neill.
“You have go back to a little bit of history on how they’ve been as international players for you. They can leave their club situations behind. Hopefully we can make a real impact and go to the finals again.
“The depth of the squad will be tested. It’s not particularly deep, there’s no secret to that, but it gives players opportunities, especially the younger players, and I think the younger players we’ve brought into the squad have freshened things up a little bit.”
Estonia’s most recognisable player is their captain, former Liverpool centre half Ragnar Klavan, now with Cagliari – he’s their only representative in one of the big European leagues. Their best-known name may be Poom, but that’s 20-year-old midfielder Markus Poom, son of former long-serving goalkeeper Mart.
Northern Ireland must beat the current Estonian goalkeeper at least once tonight – or else they can forget setting any direct sights on Euro 2020.