San Marino hopeful of first competitive win but O'Neill should drive Northern Ireland to victory
Euro 2024 qualifier: San Marino v Northern Ireland (Stadio Olimpico di San Marino/ Serravalle, 7.45pm Irish time)
The Rubicon was literally crossed by the Northern Ireland team before coming here; if they don’t beat San Marino they’ll have crossed a metaphorical Rubicon and needn’t bother coming back home.
With Imola racetrack nearby, this is a place for the visitors to make a flying start to their Euro qualifying campaign. The margin of victory could be a factor as the finishing line of qualification approaches, but in the here and now a win is a must, setting Northern Ireland up for their first home match, against Finland on Sunday.
A huge amount of goodwill emanated from the ‘Green and White Army’ about the appointment of the new/ old boss Michael O’Neill, but that could dissipate if his side fails to pick up all three points.
NI manager Michael O'Neill on the importance of set pieces
O’Neill himself has noted a reduction in his wide attacking options, exacerbated by injury to Conor McMenamin, but he thinks coming out of the blocks quickly is the way forward:
“There’s different ways to play against teams that will defend deep, maybe concede some level of possession to ourselves.
“The key for us is not to get dragged into a slow game. When we played here the last time [a 3-0 win in September 2017], we made the opposition defend and that’s what you have to do, don’t play in front of them. That’s the message that we’ve hammered home to the players.
“We still have a lot of pace in the wide areas – you look at [Jamal] Lewis, [Conor] Bradley, Trai Hume playing at Sunderland is very attacking, you’ve got Gavin White, Shane Ferguson, Dion Charles could play off the side as well, and Matty Kennedy.
“So I think we’ve got a number of good options that can still cause problems in the wide areas; it’s just that maybe the players we’ve lost, and the likes of [Niall] McGinn in the latter stages of his career, and [Stuart] Dallas out, we maybe just don’t have the right replacements for those players at this moment in time.”
Conor Washington is one forward who can run the channels effectively and O’Neill insists he is good to go after a fitness test on Tuesday.
Michael O'Neill at training in the San Marino stadium
Yet the hosts seem to sense that they can pose problems to their under-strength opponents.
San Marino midfielder Alessandro Golinucci commented: “I have a very positive feeling about the match. We are very united and are ready to play a good match.
“Now we have the possibility to play well. We are not the old San Marino, we are a new San Marino and we have potential and possibilities to do more.
“We aware that strong players in the Northern Ireland team who play for prestigious clubs are injured and we will do our best to get a good result.”
Home coach Fabrizio Costantini may resemble Antonio Conte pre his hair transplant, but he is more optimistic than the Italian, saying: “We are motivated and have done better recently and also scored more goals. We respect Northern Ireland but we don’t want to be victims.
“We will try to play as well as we can but we also know Northern Ireland is a very strong team and it is a team that has had some very good results over the years and with Michael O’Neill back as manager maybe it will be even stronger…
“We hope it will be our first win in a competitive international. You never lose hope.”
San Marino do almost always lose, though, and even without a number of more experienced players, O’Neill will surely have his team geared up and driven to inflict yet another defeat on the nation ranked lowest in the world.