Michael O’Neill will make his homecoming on Sunday night when he takes charge of his first Northern Ireland home game since returning to the job in December.
Finland will represent a much tougher challenge than San Marino as O’Neill’s side look to build on Thursday’s 2-0 victory and make a perfect start to Euro 2024 qualifying.
Here the PA news agency looks at the main talking points ahead of the match.
O’Neill’s return has brought an immediate boost to the mood and belief amongst the Northern Ireland fans, and nowhere will that be more obvious than at Windsor. Those members of the Green and White Army that travelled to San Marino did so with much more optimism than they had during the latter days of Ian Baraclough’s reign, and O’Neill recognises the importance of that relationship. “We’ll have some young players on the pitch and they will need to feel they have the support of the crowd and that is vital,” he said. “I think any player, particularly in an international shirt and playing in front of a fanbase which are extremely positive and always gets behind the team, that’s all we can ask. They always do and if they can bring an excellent decibel to it, we’ll respond to that.”
Northern Ireland’s home record was key to the success that O’Neill enjoyed in his eight years in charge between 2012 and 2020. And the manager said its reputation as a fortress was built on defence. “In 18 qualifying games we had 11 clean sheets and that’s key,” he said. “In the previous campaign under Ian they didn’t concede a goal at home and that shows you the strength as a team defensively. Obviously you have to find a way to win as well and hopefully that’s something we can add to that. But the backbone of any good Northern Ireland team is the ability to keep clean sheets.” To do that on Sunday, they will need to keep Finland’s Teemu Pukki quiet.
O’Neill has not improved the mood by being warm and fuzzy. He is demanding on players and staff, but with that he instils a confidence and belief. “The standards have gone up and the pressure has as well,” said Craig Cathcart, captain for these games. “The (young players) have come into it and the standards are high. Michael keeps the standards high. The coaches keep the standards high and us experienced players have to do that as well. They come into the fold and they know what’s expected of them.”
Northern Ireland have long struggled to score, having been looking for a reliable threat in front of goal since Kyle Lafferty’s goals dried up soon after Euro 2016. Dion Charles announced his candidacy as he got off the mark with two goals in San Marino, and he formed an encouraging partnership with Conor Washington. “It takes time,” O’Neill said of the alliance. “They’re both players who carry a threat in behind, work hard and press together. If you play a front two you need that. With this system we’re playing the front two are essential to how the team functions.”
Aside from Dion Charles, the most encouraging displays in San Marino came from two teenagers in Conor Bradley and Shea Charles. O’Neill now has a decision to make on whether the pair are ready to go again. Dropping them would seem harsh, but are they ready for a second start in the space of a few days against much more experienced opposition? The more defensive-minded Trai Hume could make a case to replace Bradley on club form, while Jordan Thompson offers an experienced alternative to Shea Charles.
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