Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has told his players this week’s Euro 2020 qualifiers against Estonia and Belarus are “essential” to their hopes of navigating a tough group.
With Holland and Germany the other two nations in Group C, the games at Windsor Park on Thursday and Sunday are the most winnable of the eight fixtures facing Northern Ireland.
“They’re essential,” O’Neill said. “There’s no point saying otherwise. If we didn’t get a result, yes you still have games to make up but if we’re realistic we have to make sure with these two games we do everything possible to win.
“Our other two home games are Germany and Holland so without being disrespectful to Estonia and Belarus these are the easier games at home.”
In last year’s Nations League, Northern Ireland never recovered from the disappointment of losing a home game they dominated against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and went on to lose all four matches in the competition to suffer relegation.
Regaining some winning momentum is therefore vital if they are to keep themselves in hunt for a place in next year’s championships.
“These games are essential in terms of our opportunity for momentum, for points on the board,” O’Neill added.
“When you’re a smaller nation you need to be out in front. It’s very difficult to come from behind in qualifying when you’re a smaller nation.
“The players are under no illusions. We’ve looked at the group and talked about the scenarios.
“But that’s all talk at the end of the day. You can plan and plan but you have to go out and perform.”
O’Neill has injury concerns over Corry Evans and Gareth McAuley, who both have hamstring problems, while Gavin Whyte is carrying a thigh injury.
One player who will definitely not be involved is Will Grigg, who has returned to Sunderland with an ankle injury.
Estonia manager Martin Reim is braced for a tough fight against a “physical” Northern Ireland team.
He said: “Of course I don’t know what Michael is thinking for tomorrow but we have seen in the last six games, home and away, they are very physical, very straight in their minds and it will be a big fight in the field.
“We have our own plan on how to play but a plan is always good in theory. We have to see on the field if it is working or not. But we came here to get a good result and we will try to do everything to achieve that.”
Estonia may be missing their most accomplished player in ex-Liverpool defender Ragnar Klavan, but they will hope to be in safe hands at the back.
Sergei Lepmets is likely to start in goal ahead of the experienced former Sheffield United keeper Mihkel Aksalu, but Reim will leave the final choice in the hands of ex-Derby, Sunderland and Watford goalkeeper Mart Poom.