O’Neill avoids spat with Russians

Thu, Sep 6, 2012, 01:00

Soccer:Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has declined to get involved in a war of words with his side’s Russian hosts. The sides meet at Moscow’s Lokomotiv Stadium tomorrow in the first qualifier of the new World Cup campaign, with Russia heavy favourites to get off the mark with a victory.

When asked about the tie by local journalists, Russia striker Alexander Kerzhakov reportedly said he had only recently been informed of Northern Ireland’s existence. Meanwhile, Russia’s new manager Fabio Capello gave only sketchy details when asked to assess O’Neill’s side and has decided to go into the match with only two fit forwards.

O’Neill was offered the chance to respond to those perceived slights but refused to be let the issue vex him. “t doesn’t really concern me to be honest,” he said. “I’m not really sure about the translation), but our focus is solely on ourselves and how we prepare and perform on the night."

“I believe Kerzhakov has played in Spain for a period so hopefully his geography is a little bit better than that. I would assume most of the Russian players will have heard of Northern Ireland, but it doesn’t concern me at all. Our focus is with our own players. The opinions of the opposition you can’t change or alter.

“We’ll deal with that tomorrow evening when the game takes place. All those things are really side issues for us at this moment in time. We’ve done a lot of research on Russia and we’re comfortable with where we are as a side.”

The match marks O’Neill’s first competitive game at the helm following three riendlies, with Capello also new to the Russia post. Eectations are significantly higher for the Italian and O’Neill hopes that can play into the underdogs’ hands.

“Everyone knows the experience Capello has at international and club level and obviously Russia feel he’s the right man to take them forward after their exploits at Euro 2012,” he said.

“But all the expectation is with Russia and it suits us not to have to deal with that. It’s a game we can look forward to with optimism rather than with the burden of expectation. It’s a game where we have everything to gain.”

O’Neill has been forced to call on relatively inexperienced players during all three of his matches to date, but has finally found himself with virtually a full-strength squad to choose from. Of the three withdrawals from his initial 23-man squad, Paddy McCourt, Martin Paterson and Shane Ferguson, only the latter was a likely starter.

And the former Shamrock Rovers boss is pleased with the look of his first-choice XI.

“This is the strongest squad we’ve had available, no doubt about that,” he said. “In the three previous games we’ve been hindered by injury, particularly with the experienced members — Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird, Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt. “That is a spine of players who have a lot of international experience and experience of playing at the top level in the Premier League.

“They will be able to cope with this kind of fixture, they’ve done it over the years and certainly those players will be key. They’ve led by example for Northern Ireland and they will be crucial to us as we go forward. There’s no reason, with the level of player we have in there alongside some of the younger ones, that this group of players can’t get results.

O’Neill conceded that Ferguson’s absence was a disappointment, with the energetic Newcastle man starting in the last three fixtures on the left side of midfield, but is happy with the options he has.

“It’s always disappointing to lose men from your initial squad and Shane was a blow because he has played so well for us in last three games,” he said. “But I think we have ample cover in other areas. I’m happy with the players we have available to us. The experienced players we have back give the squad a more solid look about it than we have had in previous games.”

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