Michael O’Neill has called on his players to draw on the experience of four years ago as they continue their push for qualification for Euro 2020.
Germany will be the visitors to Windsor Park on Monday night as Northern Ireland face an acid test of their ambitions to replicate their success in reaching Euro 2016, the nation’s first major finals in 34 years.
The Green and White Army have put themselves in the best possible position to reach next summer’s tournament with four wins out of four so far in Group C, but things get significantly tougher now as they must face both Germany and Holland home and away.
It will be a tall order, but O’Neill is drawing on the hurdles overcome in their Euro 2016 campaign when looking for inspiration.
“The exciting bit is to believe they can do it,” he said. “The exciting bit for the lads who went to France was could they get out of a group that was horrendously difficult and they did.
“Those are all the things you draw on as a manager. My main priority is that injuries don’t catch up with us and leave us in a (difficult) scenario.”
Corry Evans, who captained the side in Thursday’s 1-0 friendly win over Luxembourg, said that belief now runs through the entire squad given their success four years ago and their near-miss in qualifying for the last World Cup.
“I remembering coming into the squad and to get a win for Northern Ireland was massive,” the 29-year-old said.
“Now we are going into games with a lot of confidence and that shows how far we have come as a squad.”
O’Neill may be excited about the possibilities ahead but he admitted there were some things that kept him up at night – particularly at a time when he has already lost Michael Smith, Jordan Jones and Paul Smyth to injury, while Callum Morris and Liam Boyce nurse problems.
“The worst thing about (being) a manager is trying to control the things you can’t control,” O’Neill said.
“Look at the scenario where Jonny Evans played for West Brom three days before the Greece game (in Euro 2016 qualifying) and pulls his hamstring, the biggest game we’ve had for 30 years to qualify for a major tournament.
“Those things are outwith my control, so those are the things that keep you awake at night.
“What I can control is the preparation of the team, both physically, tactically and I need these players to grasp this opportunity.
“They’ve got to see this as an opportunity, not as a, ‘Oh, we’re playing Germany, we’re playing Holland’. We’re playing two teams that have ambitions to win the tournament, never mind qualify for it, let’s be honest.”
Confidence levels are certainly high, with Thursday’s win – however scruffy it may have been, coming via Kevin Malget’s own goal – making it five wins out of five.
“The game has come at a good time for us,” said midfielder George Saville. “With winning the first four group games and then the friendly win, we have a lot of belief.
“There’s belief in the camp now going into every game that we can get something out of it.
“The Germans are the Germans, but playing at home will give us an advantage and you never know – anything can happen.”
When Northern Ireland reached Euro 2016, they did so by topping a group which also included Romania, Hungary, Finland, the Faroe Islands and Greece.
Getting to Euro 2020 ahead of either Germany or France would be another matter.
“I’m excited,” O’Neill said. “If we can qualify out of a group with Germany and Holland, you tell me where that ranks.”
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