Things have gone so well for Northern Ireland at the start of Group F that Michael O’Neill finds himself being asked unexpected questions about expectation. He responds with a tone of happy exasperation and says: “That’s what we wanted to create.”
Three wins in four games – three of which have been away – have left the Irish second in the group and a win over Finland at Windsor Park this evening will bring France next summer within reach.
O’Neill has told his players: “It’s not much fun playing without expectation – that’s what you do with your mates.
“This is why you’re an international footballer. I think they relish it and I’ve no concerns about that. This is a grounded group, good spirit, and I don’t think the occasion will be detrimental to performance. That’s what we want to deal with.”
O’Neill has been relaxed in Belfast. For the first time he has no major absentees and he could have half of his outfield players drawn from the Premier League for the first time in a qualifier. That says much about O’Neill’s work with a limited squad.
Southampton midfielder Steven Davis, his captain, missed the last qualifier, the loss in Romania, and his absence was felt.
Finland are managed by Mixu Paatelainen, who worked with O’Neill at Cowdenbeath. An Irish win would effectively eliminate O’Neill’s friend. New expectations and ramifications.Reuse content