Monday 22 January 2018

North won't let this golden opportunity slip away - O'Neill

Northern Ireland's Kyle Lafferty celebrates his match-clinching goal against the Faroe Islands with manager Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland's Kyle Lafferty celebrates his match-clinching goal against the Faroe Islands with manager Michael O'Neill

Liam Blackburn

Michael O'Neill is adamant that 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 tomorrow.

"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 said. "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 (in the Faroes).

"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."

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.

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