Sitting in a makeshift press tent on Friday, as Windsor Park is redeveloped around him, Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill stated: "This is a game where we can take a massive stride, but probably the main crunch will be the double-header against the Faroes and Hungary."
All managers give it the one-game-at-a-time talk but even before facing group leaders Romania on Saturday, with the possibility of overtaking them in the table, O’Neill could see the potential of a draw and, therefore, what comes next.
And now, after a most respectable 0-0 against the team ranked 12th in the world – maybe generously – Northern Ireland face the Faroe Islands away on 4 September and then three days later play Hungary in Belfast. But winning one, or both, suddenly looks harder than it did on Friday.
While O’Neill’s players were pushing Romania without breaking through, the Faroe Islands were confirming the staggering demise of Greece, winning 2-1 in Torshavn. At the same time, Hungary scored an 82nd-minute winner in Finland to scoot two points behind the Irish. “Very interesting,” was O’Neill’s understated verdict.
Northern Ireland have beaten both already – the Faroes 2-0 in Belfast, Hungary 2-1 in Budapest – so should not be daunted. But O’Neill recognised the Romania draw as the “most tense” yet, and tension will increase.
As he has stressed, he needs all his limited resources available, although previous fringe players such as Brentford’s Stuart Dallas are now starters. O’Neill lost keeper Roy Carroll on Friday and Hamilton’s Michael McGovern stepped in and kept a clean sheet.
The 30 year-old from Enniskillen said there was “a sense of disappointment” about Saturday’s draw, but McGovern then struck an optimistic note about the double-header to come: “With maximum points, we could qualify.”
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