Euro 2024 qualifiers: NI boss Michael O’Neill says it is ‘imperative’ they finish on a positive note

20 November 2023 0 By Total Football News

Watch: The NI job is always a difficult one – O’Neill

Venue: Windsor Park, Belfast Date: Monday, 20 November Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio Ulster; live text and report on BBC Sport website; highlights on BBC One NI

Michael O’Neill has said it is “imperative” Northern Ireland end a hugely disappointing Euro 2024 qualifying campaign on a positive note.

O’Neill’s side go into Monday night’s final match at home to Group H winners Denmark at Windsor Park having lost seven of their nine outings.

A very inexperienced side suffered a crushing 4-0 defeat away to Finland on Friday.

“Obviously we want to finish on a high if we can,” O’Neill told BBC Sport.

“It is a difficult game against a top nation who have already secured their place in next summer’s finals.

“We have just got to bounce back from the disappointment of Friday night, when the second half ran away from us, and we have just got to try and make amends for that.

“You always want to leave on a positive when there is a gap [until the next internationals in March].

“It is imperative on us as a group of players and staff to try and finish on a positive. That is certainly going to be the aim in terms of consistency of performance and hopefully a good result.”

Dan BallardDan Ballard is a doubt for the Denmark game because of a hamstring problem

Despite Northern Ireland supporters having genuine hopes of qualification at the outset, this campaign has been disastrous in terms of results, with the team’s only points coming in wins against lowly San Marino.

A major factor in the poor results has been an injury crisis that was bad at the start and has got slowly worse as the campaign progressed, with O’Neill saying he was without 15 players for last week’s trip to Helsinki.

It has been a particularly challenging period for O’Neill throughout this run of three double-headers across the last three months, as he has had to face questions from the media about on and off-pitch issues.

Despite that, he did seek to lighten the mood during Sunday’s press conference when he said: “I’m not traumatised or anything, I’ll be alright!

“You seem a lot more down about it than me. It’ll be alright, lads. Christmas is around the corner.”

Asked by BBC Sport NI if the Northern Ireland manager’s job was any more difficult now than it was when he first returned for a second spell in charge in December, O’Neill said the role has always been a challenging one.

“It is about getting a group of players together and building a strong bond amongst them to try and punch above your weight,” he explained.

“We were able to do that in the past. At this minute in time we have been challenged because a lot of those players are no longer with us, and a lot have been replaced by a lot of younger players.

“This is a good group of lads, they are just lacking in a bit of experience. I think that showed again in the final 20 minutes of the game against Finland but again they will get an opportunity on Monday night against a top team to show the fans what they are about as young players coming into the team.”

‘We have to contain the opposition’

Steven DavisInjured Steven Davis attended NI training on Sunday

Looking specifically at how he will approach a game against a team that beat Northern Ireland 1-0 in Copenhagen in June and that secured their place as group winners by beating Slovenia on Friday, O’Neill said sustaining a level of performance for the entire match will be vital.

“We recognise where we are at the minute and where they are as a top tier-one team. We have to make sure we contain the opposition,” he said.

“When we have gone behind we have been in games right up until the final minute trying to get back into it. The game went away from us on Friday night and we have got to try and make amends for that and make sure we have a consistent level of performance throughout the game.”

O’Neill also believes the Windsor Park crowd can play an important role in encouraging a young squad full of players who have not experienced winning very often at senior international level.

“We have had some great nights here [at Windsor Park] and the atmosphere generally is very, very positive.

“That certainly helps all the players but it particularly helps the young players stepping into the arena to know the crowd is totally behind them.

“The other side for these young lads is that most of them are in single figures for caps. They have not won a lot of games so that is never easy from a playing point of view. I think the supporters can play a big part.”

Denmark will not take Northern Ireland lightly – Schmeichel

Meanwhile, Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel has vowed his team will not make the mistake of underestimating Northern Ireland.

The group-topping Danes will be strong favourites to win the game, sitting 56 places above their depleted opposition in the world rankings and having won their previous five matches.

Most of the Northern Ireland players that Anderlecht goalkeeper Schmeichel remembers from his time in English football are missing, but he will not be taking O’Neill’s young team lightly.

“First-hand knowledge of them, I haven’t played against many of them for sure,” Schmeichel said.

“I think it would be a big mistake to underestimate Northern Ireland at home, regardless of how qualification has gone.

“In a one-off game I’m sure they would love to beat us. From our point of view our aim, our motivation is the same. We prepare as we would against any other team. We wouldn’t be disrespectful.”