Friday 20 April 2018

O'Neill: Let's make each goal count

Michael O'Neill will look to attack against Cyprus
Michael O'Neill will look to attack against Cyprus

Northern Ireland are hopeful of ending an embarrassing drought in away friendlies when they take on Cyprus on Wednesday night, with manager Michael O'Neill calling on his side to make every goal count.

Amazingly, Northern Ireland have drawn a blank in their last nine friendles on the road - with that number rising to 11 when you include Carling Nations Cup defeats against the Republic of Ireland and Wales.

Indeed, their last away goal outside of qualification came in Finland in 2006, with a teenage Kyle Lafferty grabbing the winner in a 2-1 success.

A trip to Nicosia to face a side ranked 122nd in the world presents a wonderful chance to put an end that sequence, but O'Neill knows his side are never going to be a free-scoring outfit and must learn to edge close games when Euro 2016 qualifying begins later this year.

"We'll pick a team with a lot of attacking options against Cyprus and we want to see that bear fruit," O'Neill told Press Association Sport.

"We want to see the team play on the front foot with a smile on their faces. You would obviously like to come away from home and score goals on a regular basis but that's just not Northern Ireland and it never has been.

"The only people who can change that are these players, but we have to accept where we are. We're not a nation who are going to score a huge number of goals and we never have been.

"But if you look at the statistics (from World Cup qualification) one of the most interesting for me was that Greece won eight games and only scored 12 goals.

"We have to look at how countries like that progress and qualify for tournaments."

It would be fitting if Lafferty was the man to end his country's barren streak, with the Palermo striker back in the squad after a self-induced six-month exile.

He last played in the 4-2 defeat by Portugal last September, sent off 13 minutes after coming off the bench.

Suspension effectively ended his campaign and the arrival of his second child ruld him out of a subsequent friendly in Turkey.

He has spoken with contrition about his red card and is eager to make amends should he get the chance on Wednesday.

O'Neill has been critical of the 26-year-old's contribution during his time in the job, but remains a fan and is eager to get the best out of him in future.

"There's a lot of talk about Kyle and I think at times he'd probably prefer if there was a bit less talk. He just wants to get on with it and play," said O'Neill.

"I don't think it's a case of Kyle having to put things right, but for various reasons we've had a six-month period without seeing him.

"He is (at) an interesting place in his career.

"I'm very pleased by the reports I've had from Italy and he's got eight goals for Palermo which is a decent return. There's also a chance of him playing in Serie A next year, which must be very exciting for him.

"But it's about finding that consistency on the international stage as well because a focused, fit Kyle Lafferty is a big positive for us.

"He gives our play a different dimension and if we are going to be successful, Kyle has a big role to play in that."

Northern Ireland have two more friendlies, in Uruguay and Chile, before beginning their Euro 2016 qualifiers in September.

Press Association

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