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Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# brilliant beginning
Northern Ireland look to continue superb start to their qualification campaign
Michael O’Neill is overseeing a remarkable turnaround with a team that’s been beaten, bloodied and broken for many years.

IT’S BEEN A brilliant start to Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualification campaign. Three wins from their first three games has seen them take a substantial step towards booking their place at a European Championship for the very first time.

This evening, they face Romania in Bucharest hoping to keep their magnificent 100% record intact and manager Michael O’Neill has acknowledged that such a good start means tonight’s game isn’t necessarily a crucial one:

“I think we come into this game with everything to gain. If you looked at the start of the campaign and the way the fixtures came out – the fact that we’ve been away to Hungary, Greece and Romania – if someone had offered us nine points after four games, I think we’d have taken that. This is nearly like a bonus game for us. We’ll do everything possible to add to the points tally we have but if we lose the game it’s not going to be a terrible setback. But equally, if we were to win the game it would take us another huge step forward.”

ONeill Adam Davy / PA Wire/Press Association Images There are plenty of reasons for Michael O'Neill to smile as his Northern Ireland side look to make it four wins from four games this evening. Adam Davy / PA Wire/Press Association Images / PA Wire/Press Association Images

It hasn’t just been about O’Neill’s spirited side racking up the points but how they’ve got about it. In their opening assignment away to Hungary, they were a goal down with fifteen minutes left. But, Niall McGinn popped up with the equaliser before Kyle Lafferty scored an 88th-minute winner. The manner of that win has set the tone for the qualifiers that have followed.

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Last month, in front of a boisterous Belfast crowd, there was a comfortable 2-0 win over the Faroe Islands – Lafferty again popping up with a well-taken goal while Gareth McAuley also got his name on the score-sheet. But, it seemed the calm before the storm. Just a few days later. A trip to Athens followed and the majority expected a difficult encounter.

But Jamie Ward gave the team a 9th-minute lead courtesy of a wicked deflection and shortly after the break Lafferty raced 40 yards before casually slipping the ball to the net to double the North’s advantage. Just before the interval he was mightily unlucky when after a superb run down the left wing, his shot smacked the underside of the bar and popped out.

Afterwards, O’Neill was fulsome in his praise of the striker.

He has all the attributes you need in a good centre forward. Kyle has been fantastic in the three games. He’s facing international defenders who just can’t handle him. He has the ability, technique, pace and size.”

But as much as Northern Ireland’s attacking players have impressed, they’ve shipped just one goal in three games – and that came from a set-piece. With McAuley a rock, there’s been steady moments from youngster Ryan McLaughlin but veterans like Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and goalkeeper Roy Carroll have delivered some top-drawer performances too.

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Northern Ireland Portugal WCup Soccer Peter Morrison / AP/Press Association Images Gareth McAuley is part of a nucleus of players integral to Northern Ireland's recent success. Peter Morrison / AP/Press Association Images / AP/Press Association Images

It’s certainly an interesting mix with captain Steven Davis and Jamie Ward impressing too. Throw in a fully fit Jonny Evans (and maybe a less-raw Paddy McNair) and there’s a nice and balanced nucleus. O’Neill is aware of the importance of a select group within the squad.

“What we have in this squad is six or seven really key experienced players for us and when we lose one or two of them, there’s no doubt it’s a concern. But what we have found is that when the younger players come in, they’ve not let us down.”

Tonight, there will be changes due to injury but because of the team’s current form, it’s a great opportunity for squad players to step up and be part of something exciting. Because of the recent string of results, competition for places will be intense. Everyone wants to play.

Thinking back to the recent history of Northern Irish football, it’s been a remarkable turnaround.

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