Saturday 21 September 2019

Real tests begin for O'Neill's young guns

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Ian Parker

Michael O'Neill has warned the real tests begin now as his Northern Ireland squad prepare to face Germany in tomorrow's crunch Euro 2020 qualifier.

O'Neill's team have put themselves in the best possible position to reach next year's finals with four wins out of four so far in Group C but with games against Germany and Holland home and away next up still have the hard work to do.

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The crucial run of fixtures starts with Germany's visit to Windsor Park tomorrow, and O'Neill knows his new-look team - which has seen a large amount of turnover since Euro 2016 - faces its biggest test yet.

This is a younger side than the one four years ago. Gone are the likes of Chris Brunt, Chris Baird, and Gareth McAuley, while younger players such as Jamal Lewis, Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Gavin Whyte play a bigger role.

"I don't think we've got the level of experience (compared to last time)," O'Neill said. "We've not replaced Brunt with an experienced player. We've not replaced McAuley with an experienced player. We've not replaced Hughes with an experienced player. Potentially, for some of our lads to be thrown into the game will be a massive step up in quality.

"We won't have that same level of international experience. It will take time. What we do have is more energy in the legs than we've ever had in my time. The younger players have given us that. I wouldn't say we are stronger but we have the potential to be stronger."

If Northern Ireland have seen turnover among their players, Germany have seen more, undergoing a full rebuild in the wake of their dismal showing at the last World Cup. The difference for Germany is that finding ready-made replacements is significantly easier.

Joachim Low's side won their opening three qualifiers, but suffered a setback on Friday night when they surrendered an early lead to lose 4-2 at home to Holland.

"It will be a very different Germany team than we've played in our previous three encounters," O'Neill said. "The big names that won the World Cup, there's not many left. Toni Kroos is possibly the only one other than (Manuel) Neuer. But Germany can turn around their squad in three months and still pick a very strong squad with the level of resources they have. We have to drip-feed players in over a long period of time and give players the opportunity when we're not sure if they're ready or not."

Those growing pains were on full display during last year's Nations League campaign, when Northern Ireland lost all four games to suffer relegation, but the rewards have been seen in the home and away victories over Estonia and Belarus in qualifying so far. Continuing that level of performance against bigger nations is now the challenge.

"It's encouraging that players like Jamal look more than ready," O'Neill said. "Now they have to prepare for when we don't have the ball, we have to prepare to see where we can find opportunities. We want to try and play as much as possible on the front foot."

Meanwhile, Scotland's hopes of qualifying for the 2020 European Championship through Group I rely on getting a positive result against Belgium, according to skipper Andy Robertson.

The 2-1 defeat by Russia at Hampden Park on Friday night - after John McGinn had given the home side an early lead - left the home team despondent.

Steve Clarke's side finished the match six points behind the visitors after five fixtures with the Red Devils three points clear at the top with maximum points from five games.

The Scots have a Nations League semi-final place next March as a qualifying safety net of sorts but, if they are to reach the finals through the normal route, the Liverpool left-back concedes they have to take something tomorrow from the number one ranked side.

"It doesn't matter how far we are behind Belgium, they were always going to win this group comfortably," said Robertson. "The worrying thing is how far we are behind Russia.

"We could have been the team to compete with them and now they are six points clear. "That is going to be pretty hard to get back but we need to try and unfortunately we have Belgium at home next. There is no other option but to get a result and if we don't get one I think it will be verging on impossible to get through this group."

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