Thursday 22 March 2018

Michael O'Neill says Northern Ireland won't slip up with qualification in sight

Michael O'Neill is mobbed by Kyle Lafferty following the striker's goal in Torshavn
Michael O'Neill is mobbed by Kyle Lafferty following the striker's goal in Torshavn

Michael O'Neill is now adamant his Northern Ireland side will be in France for Euro 2016 next summer after a 3-1 victory in the Faroe Islands moved them to the top of their Group F qualifying group.

Gareth McAuley scored two headers in Torshavn while Kyle Lafferty fired in his sixth goal of the qualifiers to defeat the 10-man Faroes and leave O'Neill's team on the cusp of history.

Northern Ireland have not reached a major international tournament since the 1986 World Cup, but the current squad can end that long absence from elite international competition with victory over Hungary in Belfast in three days' time.

"We know the significance of three points," O'Neill said of the Friday night victory.

"It's a fantastic prize for the players, well deserved. They've won three of the four games away from home which is phenomenal in any campaign.

"I genuinely can't see them letting this opportunity...them not taking it - I can't see how they won't take it."

The possibility that his men could choke with the prize so tantalisingly close is not one O'Neill fears either.

Instead, he is looking forward to a Windsor Park meeting with the Hungarians which could end in joyous celebration.

"It's a great scenario to be playing for qualification in our home stadium," O'Neill added.

"The pleasing aspect of it is we do have a little bit of a safety net there as well. A lot of people talked about this as a must-win and a pivotal game - it really isn't. The work we did in the early part of the group gave us a buffer that we didn't need tonight.

"We can go into that (Hungary) game and do everything possible to win that group. We're top and I just think the players will respond.

"This is the game that was going to be the nervous game. The next game, I think they'll handle it. I look at the intensity of the team, right through the team, there wasn't a player that didn't perform tonight. I just thought we were excellent to a man.

"We just have to continue that. The effects of the game tonight and the fatigue element of it, I don't think they will be a factor given what's at stake."

McAuley, who scored in the reverse meeting between the two countries last year, gave the visitors the perfect start with a 12th-minute header at Torsvollur.

Stuart Dallas' error contributed to Joan Edmundsson's equaliser, but Edmundsson was then dismissed after the hour mark for two cautions, both picked up for rash challenges on Oliver Norwood.

Within 10 minutes McAuley had nodded home another free-kick and Lafferty rifled in a third, completing a "perfect evening" for O'Neill, whose men rose to the top of their group thanks to Romania's stalemate in Hungary.

Faroes boss Lars Olsen claimed Edmundsson's red card was the key moment.

"I was very pleased after the first 45 minutes," he said.

"I think the beginning of the second half it became better and better. We have control, we don't give any chances away and then of course the red card changed the game. That's the way I see it.

"The way the match was played, I'm a little bit disappointed because I think we played very well if you see it compared to the game we played in Belfast. We were much better today. I congratulate Northern Ireland with the victory but I'm a little bit disappointed."

Press Association

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport