O'Neill aims for 'massive stride'
Published 12/06/2015 | 15:11
Northern Ireland's clash against Romania has been billed as the country's biggest match in 30 years and manager Michael O'Neill accepts victory would represent "a massive stride" towards Euro 2016.
O'Neill's side have been one of the continent's surprise packages in qualification, collecting 12 points from a possible 15 in Group F to sit second behind their weekend opponents.
That haul is more than Italy or Germany have managed from the same number of games and the same as Spain, a remarkable return for a nation ranked among the fifth seeds when the draw was made, and hopes of a first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup are reaching fever pitch in Ulster.
O'Neill is mindful not to overfeed the hype machine but realises victory at Windsor Park on Saturday would leave his team in a handsome position.
"I've said all along that we have to take each game as it comes - the same old manager speak, same old manager answers - but this is a game where we can really take a massive stride," he said.
"Our objective is to get to 18 points as soon as possible and we have the opportunity to reach 15 this weekend.
"Equally, if the result doesn't go our way we'd still be second in the group with four games to go.
"With regards to the hype and what's being said it doesn't really influence me, and I don't think the team think about that.
"It's not as though it's a 'last chance saloon' type of game. The best way to describe it is that the upside of winning far outweighs the downside of losing and that's a nice position to be in."
O'Neill finished fifth in his maiden campaign, picking up just one win and seven points, but has overseen a dramatic shift in fortunes since being awarded a new deal by the Irish FA.
He pitched for a top-three finish in Group F, enough to bring a play-off place, but three points would see his side spend the summer on top of the pile.
"Our objective last September was to be in the top three," he said.
"With the results we've had so far that objective is now to finish in the top two.
"If we were to win the group, fantastic, but our main aim is to maintain the gap that exists between ourselves, Hungary and Finland.
"If we can increase that deficit it will have been a positive weekend for us."
The match will once again take place in a stadium that is in the midst of a dramatic reconstruction, with just two stands in place following the demolition of the Kop.
Having already won both their matches since building work began, O'Neill has no qualms about the environment but hopes the unusual scene might unnerve the opposition.
Asked by a Romanian journalist if the state of Windsor Park was an issue for his side, O'Neill laughed: "No, you should have seen it before!
"It's not been a problem for our players, but hopefully it is for the Romanians. It' s slightly unnatural but the players have coped well and won the last two home games. There'll be 10,000 fans, an excellent atmosphere and hopefully a positive result."