Tuesday 12 December 2017

O'Neill will stick to Northern Ireland's plan even if play-off place is assured

Michael O'Neill still wants to beat Norway, even if their play-off is assured
Michael O'Neill still wants to beat Norway, even if their play-off is assured

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill's team selection against Norway will not change even if their play-off place is confirmed before kick-off in Oslo.

O'Neill's side have already secured second place in Group C, with eight of the group runners-up advancing to November's play-offs, and Northern Ireland will be assured of one of those berths if Scotland fail to beat Slovenia in one of Sunday's earlier games.

O'Neill has six players that are one caution away from missing that potential first leg, so some prior knowledge about their play-off situation could be vital if he did not want to risk those players.

Yet O'Neill is not allowing himself to sweat on Scotland's result, particularly with the draw for the play-offs being seeded and the preparation time he has.

"It was great for us to secure second place, but we've never felt that was necessarily going to be enough," he said in Oslo.

"We didn't celebrate after the game against Czech Republic, we were delighted to finish second in the group, but it was always in my mind that we would come here needing something from this game.

"We'll approach the game with the intention of trying to win the game and not to be beaten.

"We just can't pick two teams, you couldn't throw a team out on the pitch with less than 24 hours notice and say, 'Go and play'.

"I can't take chances. If the alternative is to take that chance and miss out, or to go into the play-offs with players missing (through suspension)... I have to do the right thing and the right thing is to try and win the game.

"We spoke to the players earlier about it, and said 'Look, the scenario is this: if we can win the game it strengthens our hand in terms of will we be seeded or not,' that's a big incentive as well.

"We just can't approach it with anything other than the mentality to try and win the game.

"We've had two days between the games and one of them is the travel day, this is our first meaningful training session where we get an hour on the pitch.

"We can't say, 'If the game finishes like this we'll play with this team, if the game finishes like this we'll play with this team'. We will prepare regardless of what happens elsewhere."

O'Neill believes his players are subscribing to his theory too, referencing the way they qualified for Euro 2016 with a game to spare before drawing in Finland to ensure they finished top of their group.

"The players are very focused, we've not relaxed in any way about it and thought, 'Yeah, we're fine'. Not at all," he said.

"We qualified for France with a game to spare but we still had the incentive to go and win the group in Finland which we did.

"Most players in my squad have played out game 10 (of a qualification campaign) with nothing to play for. It's a nice position to be in that the last two tournaments game 10 has meant something.

"These are the positions we want to be in, games we want to be involved in. I can see the players' edge is there, they're not relaxed at all and they know there's a job to do and the focus is on doing that job."

Press Association

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