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Michael O'Neill's men will carry momentum into next qualifiers thanks to deserved late winner

Mon, Mar 25 2019

Michael O'Neill watching his team during their 2-1 win over Belarus Credit: Clare McCahill (ETPhotos)

Macdara Ferris reports from Belfast

The late winner in Belfast means Northern Ireland have gathered maximum points from their opening two EURO 2020 qualifiers and sit top of the Group C qualification table.

Michael O’Neill’s men made it back-to-back wins thanks to a Josh Magennis goal three minutes from time. Germany sit in second place thanks to their own late goal with Nico Schulz scoring the winning goal in their 3-2 win in Amsterdam.

“We’re top of the group until June!” joked Michael O’Neill when speaking in the post-match press conference.

“I know it sounds a bit ridiculous but it’s a significant thing because we talk a lot about momentum and that’s how you get it. You get positivity. The media are more positive and the players are more positive.”

His team have their most onerous matches coming at the conclusion of the campaign when they will face Germany and the Netherlands home and away in their last four games.

Having started with back-to-back home wins against Estonia and Belarus this week, next up in June is a double-header away to those teams on the 8thand 11thof June, long after the players’ club seasons are over.

“The games in June are difficult games, difficult for the players and the clubs, but they’re easier when you go in with momentum like we have now with these two results and performances. We will look to replicate those results and that is a big ask but we are capable of that.” 

O’Neill’s men dominated the game in Windsor Park and took the lead on the half hour mark through Jonny Evans only to be pegged back just three minutes later. While creating lots of second half chances, it required some rearrangement to get the best out of the team – and ultimately they were rewarded with substitute Josh Magennis getting the match winner.

“We found them difficult to break down. They defended deep. Their goal was a bit harsh on us. (Alex) Hleb can hurt you and he got it wide and then the deflected shot went in. We tried everything in second half. We changed the shape to 4-4-2 and the personnel. 

“It was a great piece of play,” said O’Neill about Magennis’ winner which came off a poin point Paddy McNair centre. “It is brilliant. Josh takes the ball down great, lays it off and then attacks that space.”

The home team still needed an injury save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell to give them the win. “It was a great save from Bailey,” O’Neill said. “He made one save like that at 1-0 against Estonia and now one tonight.

“Bailey does brilliantly to keep it out. It would have been a bit of travesty to have conceded at that point in time.

Although they performed well in the UEFA Nations League, they did so without getting a result of any sort. When the Euro draw was made which saw Northern Ireland drop into a group with the Netherlands and Germany, it didn’t give much oxygen for optimism.

O’Neill has confounded the doubters over the years though, and the team spirit within the camp, the work rate and structured plan means he has instilled confidence in the squad and they have given themselves the best start possible start to the qualifying campaign.

“The mood in the dressing room is fantastic,” O’Neill said. “The players enjoy being with each other, they enjoy each other’s company and being in the hotel. We had a good week. 

“The first result makes a big difference. You could tell today they were in the right frame of mind to play. That is important. We have been together a long time but the young lads have come in and keep us energized. We have a nice blend about the squad.”