Northern Ireland vs Bosnia - O’Neill embraces expectations

Posted Friday, September 07, 2018 by PA

Northern Ireland vs Bosnia - O’Neill embraces expectations

Michael O’Neill has embraced the expectations placed on his Northern Ireland squad ahead of their UEFA Nations League opener against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Saturday.

After qualifying for Euro 2016 and coming close to making this summer’s World Cup, Northern Ireland will start the new competition targeting promotion to Division A rather than fearing relegation to the third tier.

“For me, it’s good to see players turn up for international duty with a smile on their face and a real purpose and a belief they can achieve something,” said O’Neill.

It is a far cry from the mood in the team when O’Neill first took the job in 2011.

“You have to go through that situation as a manager and as a group of players,” he said.

“I didn’t just come in with a magic wand and everything just fell into place. That didn’t happen. What we managed to do was get every ounce out of the players that we could.”

O’Neill believes those expectations can help continue the momentum Northern Ireland developed in their last two qualifying campaigns as he looks to younger players to freshen up his squad.

“To have that within the group, it’s a great time for young players to come into the squad. In the early years it was difficult for them because we were struggling to get results.

“Now they come in and we’re on an upward curve. The benchmark is set higher for them. The lads coming in are going to have to perform well to stay in the squad and the team.”

Among those younger players is Leeds goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who is hoping to make his first competitive start on Saturday.

The Darlington-born 21-year-old revealed this week he had recently received a call from an England coach asking if he might still consider switching his allegiance but he wants to stay “loyal” to Northern Ireland.

If he plays on Saturday, a switch would no longer be permitted but O’Neill said that would not determine his team selection.

“It’s always a factor but I’ll pick the goalkeeper that I think deserves to play,” he said.

“At the end of the day I don’t think we’ll lose Bailey. He’s committed to us. But it’s a competitive game, the start of a new tournament. The goalkeeper that is chosen is the goalkeeper I think deserves to play.”

The changes are not just in goal. Chris Brunt has retired, while there will be a younger defence on show with Gareth McAuley not match fit having only signed for Rangers on Monday, and Aaron Hughes ruled out with a calf injury.

The transition does expose the one major concern for O’Neill amid the optimism around the team, and that is their strength in depth.

O’Neill said he was hoping to see three or four players make the breakthrough during the Nations League, but admitted nothing is guaranteed.

He said: “We can’t manufacture players. We have 25 players here, and outside of those players there aren’t any making a big enough impact with their clubs to merit being part of the squad at this moment in time.

“The number of players outside the squad, I could count them on two hands. It’s not like we have 20 or 30 players on the periphery of things.

“The opportunity will be there for the younger players if they do emerge, but at this minute I’m clinging on to hope.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina coach Robert Prosinecki suffered a heavy defeat the last time he visited Windsor Park but is confident of a different result against this time around.

Croatian Prosinecki was the man in charge of Azerbaijan when they were thumped 4-0 by Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualifier in November 2016.

But he returns with a much stronger squad – boasting the likes of Roma striker Edin Dzeko and Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic – having taken the Bosnia and Herzegovina job at the start of the year.

“We know very well the Northern Ireland team because they have played with almost the same squad in three qualification rounds and they have achieved a big success with the same team,” he said.

“They are a really good team. I was here with Azerbaijan and we lost that match, but we have a good team with great players and we expect to win tomorrow.

“They have a very strong mentality and they are physically very well prepared. We have to stay concentrated for the whole match and we expect to achieve a good result.”

Prosinecki will be forced into making a couple of changes to his team. Red Bull Salzburg right-back Darko Todorovic was expected to start but UEFA has confirmed he is suspended due to yellow cards collected on under-21 duty, while left-back Bojan Nastic is doubtful with a calf injury.

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