Friday 15 December 2017

We will not fear big guns in the play-offs - O'Neill

Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill insists Northern Ireland will approach the play-offs with no trepidation, having already faced the best side in the world in their qualifying group.

Confirmation that the Northern Irish would be in those play-offs arrived less than an hour before kick-off against Norway thanks to Scotland's draw with Slovenia.

That perhaps explained why O'Neill's side were so below-par in Oslo as Chris Brunt's bizarre own goal 19 minutes from time earned Lars Lagerback's side a 1-0 victory.

It virtually ensures Northern Ireland will not be one of the seeded teams in the draw later this month, so it could be that a team such as Portugal, Italy or Wales stands between them and a place at the World Cup finals.

Yet O'Neill is unperturbed by such possibilities, given they have experienced the might of Germany three times over the past 16 months.

"I don't think you can have a fear," he said.

"We have played Germany and acquitted ourselves well, showed great character, we went 2-0 behind in both games.

"Norway were beaten 6-0 by Germany and that can happen against them. The players know what the challenge will be, but there's no fear.

"We have lads who play football in League One, in the Championship, in the Scottish Premiership and are then facing Toni Kroos from Real Madrid and five or six players from Bayern Munich.

"They don't have to deal with that type of player and that type of movement the top teams have, but they learn very quickly and, whoever we get in the play-offs, it will not be as tough as playing Germany.

"I'm not sure being a seeded team will be a huge advantage, we will have to see the outcome of the games over the next 48 hours.

"I think we can be a threat. We know what we are, we're a difficult team to beat, there's no huge stars, we've made up of players who predominantly play their football outside the top divisions - they are well organised, play for each other and the shirt.

"We will aim to make life extremely difficult for whoever we get in the play-offs and know we are capable of doing that."

Prior to Sunday night, O'Neill's side had only been beaten by the world champions in their competitive games since Euro 2016, but they were flat at the Ullevaal Stadion.

That was understandable given the pressure was largely off once confirmation of Scotland's result reached the Northern Irish players.

And the most important thing was that those six players who were one booking away from suspension avoided seeing another yellow card flashed in their direction.

"It would have been a different game had we not had the result from Slovenia," O'Neill said.

"We had seven clean sheets and had only conceded to Germany, it would have been nice to preserve that record.

"But we can look forward to November now and hopefully the draw is kind to us. For a country of our size we have to enjoy this."

Norway's World Cup qualification campaign was lost long ago, but they ended it with three successive victories under the vastly-experienced Lagerback.

The 69-year-old took his native Sweden to five successive tournaments as well as Iceland to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, and he knows a thing or two about smaller nations exceeding expectations.

"If you play one of the top teams of course it is difficult," he said of Northern Ireland's play-off prospects.

"But I would never count out Northern Ireland. I think they have a fair and realistic chance to beat anyone."

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