Thursday 26 April 2018

Northern Ireland "a lot better equipped" now to deal with contrasting fixtures

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland entertain San Marino prior to visiting Germany
Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland entertain San Marino prior to visiting Germany

Michael O'Neill has acknowledged preparing his Northern Ireland team for contrasting fixtures with San Marino and Germany presents the biggest challenge in international football.

The country ranked 201st in the FIFA world rankings, who have never won a competitive game in their history, are the opponents in Belfast on Saturday night before O'Neill's side travel to Hannover to meet Joachim Low's world champions three days on.

The contests are, as captain Steven Davis stated, like "chalk and cheese", yet O'Neill is confident that his squad is better prepared than ever to meet the differing demands of both fixtures having lost to Russia and drawn with Luxembourg when faced with similar propositions in the previous World Cup qualifying campaign.

"That transition is the most difficult part of international football," O'Neill admitted.

"I always remember the first game in charge where we were away to (Fabio) Capello's Russia and had to be difficult to beat and then we had to get back from Russia, turn the team around and play Luxembourg here with a totally different approach and different personnel.

"We're a lot better equipped for that now. I think we also benefit from the fact that it's only three months or so since we played Germany in Paris. So we know what to expect.

"It's the difference in terms of changes of personnel that will be important in that game as well. Whilst it is a difficult task, and it's made more difficult because there's a day less, but our focus is to win the first game.

"The most important part of any game, more than being tactically ready, is being mentally right and if you win the first game you'll be mentally right for the second."

The visit of San Marino will be a landmark occasion for Northern Ireland too as they host an international at the fully-redeveloped Windsor Park for the first time.

It has taken two-and-a-half years for the stadium to be renovated to its current 18,000 capacity and a sell-out crowd will watch O'Neill's side this weekend.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino and former Holland striker Marco van Basten will be part of the pre-game ceremonies, as will some of the finest sports stars to emerge from the country such as Carl Frampton, Dennis Taylor and Pat Jennings.

"I've not been part of that but we've wheeled out everyone, haven't we," joked O'Neill.

"These are nice nights. Windsor had a slow death, let's be honest. Bit by bit, it was closed off but the redevelopment has been fantastic and it's a fresh start on the back of the team's success at Euro 2016.

"It's a big plus, not only for the national team but the domestic game here as well.

"It's no longer archaic, which is a positive thing. It's fit for purpose. When we went around Europe and we'd see countries with invariably better stadiums than we had the players would think, 'When were we going to get a stadium of that stature?' And we have it now.

"It's all bright and shiny and new, and it's got curvy bits at the end and everything, and triangles in the corner, but the most important thing is what is the atmosphere going to be like? The atmosphere will be fantastic. I think it will be a very atmospheric stadium."

Press Association

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