Northern Ireland's Paddy McNair looking forward to renewing rivalry with Dutch ace Frenkie de Jong
PADDY McNair is relishing the prospect of going toe-to-toe with Barcelona star Frenkie de Jong again when Northern Ireland welcome the Netherlands to Windsor Park tomorrow night.
The Middlesbrough midfielder kept a close watch on the classy De Jong, a central figure for Ajax before his summer switch to the Nou Camp, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Dutch snatching a late, late win in Rotterdam last month.
Michael O’Neill’s men will have taken plenty of confidence from that performance heading into tomorrow’s must-win Group C clash, and McNair admits he is looking forward to going up against the £67m man once more.
“He’s a great player and I knew before the game I was going to have to get tight to him throughout it,” said the versatile 24-year-old.
“In the last 10-15 minutes he did start to dictate play a little bit more so that’s something I’ll have to look into. But I think that was the nature of the game as well, us dropping back and then he was dropping in between [Matthijs] De Ligt and [Virgil] Van Dijk to get the ball. He’s a great player and it was nice to come up against him.
“Hopefully I can keep him at bay again on Saturday.”
Had they returned from Rotterdam with anything, Northern Ireland’s chances of securing automatic qualification would have been significantly enhanced. Instead, they are left needing a minor miracle against the Dutch and next Tuesday in Germany.
A Josh Magennis header had put them into an unlikely lead 15 minutes out, only for Memphis Depay to equalise five minutes later before Luuk de Jong and Depay struck again in injury-time to seal the deal.
The squad sat down and watched the match back yesterday morning, and McNair admitted it wasn’t enjoyable viewing.
“It was okay until the last five minutes,” he said with a rueful smile.
“Someone said it was like watching a horror movie because you knew what was coming in the last five minutes.
“When we went ahead I thought we dropped off. It’s a natural thing to do when you go one up, you sort of drop and if we were just maybe 10-15 yards up the pitch they wouldn’t have come in our half as much as they did in the last 10-15 minutes.
“That was evident when we watched it back, and even towards the end we didn’t really keep the ball… we didn’t really keep the ball that well during the game but towards the end, just to take the pressure off us a bit because it was so intense the last 15 minutes of the game.
“If we do go ahead on Saturday, that’s something we should do better.”
In what could be his final game in charge at Windsor Park, much of the focus leading into tomorrow’s game has been on boss O’Neill, who took the reins at Stoke City last week.
The former Shamrock Rovers boss has placed huge faith in McNair since bringing him into the international set-up, and the former Manchester United man has backed O’Neill to be a success at the Britannia Stadium.
“I’m happy for Michael, I think he deserves it, it’s a really good job.
“The Stoke owners seem to give managers time and I’ve no doubt Michael will go in there and change it around for them. The Championship will suit Michael’s style of play. As you saw on Saturday, Stoke got a very good result against Barnsley.
“To be honest I think whatever job Michael got he would do very well.”