Northern Ireland confident of positive result in Estonia
Euro 2020 qualifiers Group C: Estonia v Northern Ireland (A Le Coq Arena, Tallinn, 5pm Irish time)
BALTIC and yet not ‘Baltic’. Northern Ireland not only favourites, but favourites away from home, in June to boot.
Strange, changed times, but a familiar, barely changed visiting team could confirm that status and their pole position in Group C; that’s one thing that never alters, it’s always Group C.
If Michael O’Neill’s men are to avoid ending up third, behind Germany and the Netherlands, then they know they probably have to win here and in Belarus on Tuesday night.
Another difference from the past is that the visiting manager is prepared to say publicly that they can collect six more points.
Indeed, responding to an Estonian journalist asking why Northern Ireland’s away record wasn’t good, O’Neill politely begged to differ:
“Like Estonia, we’re a small nation and we often find it difficult away from home. But if you look at the last two campaigns our away record is quite strong – we had maybe 10 points in the campaign for Euro 2016 and about seven for the World Cup, so we are much better equipped to play away from home than we have been in the past.
“I know historically our away record is something different but this is a different group of players and Steven [Davis] would verify that there is a confidence when we go away from home now, that we are capable of getting a result.
“That comes with good preparation, good commitment from the players, and a good level of performance to win games away from home.”
Of course, to win games, you have to first win a game, and O’Neill is adopting that ‘building blocks’ approach:
“We’re not looking too far ahead, other than the fact we have to do everything possible to win this game first of all.
“I’m a great believer in the double-header, particularly away from home, if you can win the first game, you’re in a good position mentally to take on the second game.
“Often your opponent has had a negative result in the first game and Belarus have a very difficult game against Germany as well. But all our focus is on Estonia and making sure we win the game.”
In terms of achieving that, O’Neill pointed to the number of players at his disposal, even with injuries ruling out Niall McGinn, Olly Norwood, and Will Grigg, and what that signified:
“We've got 27 players in the squad whereas in the past we would never have had that, we would have had withdrawals, issues, I think there are only 2-3 players missing due to injury and I think that's testament to the commitment of the squad.”
Even the weather conditions are altering to be more favourable to NI, albeit perhaps with thunderstorms this evening.
Yet even had the 30 degree heat of Thursday night been repeated O’Neill wouldn’t have been too concerned, having won in similar conditions in Baku almost exactly two years ago:
“The four days in Austria training in that heat and intensity will help us with conditions here. The last two campaigns we certainly had positive results in June and we've spoken to the players about it, we had a meeting earlier today.”
O’Neill’s only ‘problems’ are deciding on his midfield make-up and choosing his centre-forward, with Kyle Lafferty, Liam Boyce, Josh Magennis, and Conor Washington all contenders.
Gavin Whyte would be an attacking statement of intent if selected to start, but Corry Evans may be more likely to come in for McGinn from the Belfast meeting.
Estonia have to be more positive than last time, so four rather than five at the back is anticipated, with Taijo Teniste at right-back, having been named to start at Windsor Park before missing out.
Further forward, ahead of a deeper two then an attacking three in midfield, Rauno Sappinen may be brought in as a spearhead after a season on loan with Den Bosch in the Netherlands.
The preponderance of Estonian players with clubs involved in summer football could favour the hosts but O’Neill has liked what he’s seen in his various training camps:
“There's been a really strong tempo to the training. What we do have genuinely in the squad is a lot of athletic players.
“It’s important you manage the game in terms of the intensity….but with this group of players there’s an undercurrent of younger players in the squad, so we are well equipped to deal with that.
“We’re looking for a similar type of performance we had in Belfast and we won’t be using the weather or conditions as an excuse not to perform.”
The rain, if it comes, will still be warm, and Northern Ireland can reign here too.
Estonia (probable, 4-2-3-1): Lepmets; Teniste, Vihmann, Mets (capt.), Pikk;
Dmitrijev, Kait; Zenjov, Vasjiljev, Ojamaa; Sappinen.
Northern Ireland (probable, 4-5-1/ 4-3-3): Peacock-Farrell; Dallas, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; McNair, Davis (capt.), Saville, C Evans, Jones; Lafferty.