O’Neill wants Northern Ireland to pile pressure on the Dutch by beating Belarus
Victory for Northern Ireland would put them on 12 points from four games
Northern Ireland’s Jonny Evans and manager Michael O’Neill at a press conference in Minsk, Belarus. Photograph: Presseye/William Cherry/Inpho
After Saturday’s dramatic come-from-behind win over Estonia in Tallinn, victory for O’Neill’s side would put them on 12 points from four games, nine points clear of Ronald Koeman’s beaten Nations League finalists.
The Dutch may have two games in hand after their adventures in Portugal last week, but with their next qualifier coming away to Germany in September, the yawning gap could weigh heavily on their shoulders.
“The most important thing for us was to try and not drop points in any of these four games because obviously we have to assume the Netherlands and Germany won’t drop points,” O’Neill said.
“But the nice thing for us is we can put pressure on, in particular the Netherlands because they have games to play and make up.”
There is no question that facing Estonia and Belarus home and away to open the campaign has helped Northern Ireland, who are looking to win four qualifiers to open a campaign for the first time.
They have not had it all their own way, however, and have relied on late Josh Magennis strikes to win both of their last two matches, at home to Belarus in March and then in Tallinn on Saturday night.
Belarus, in contrast, have played three and lost three – the latest a 2-0 defeat to Germany in Borisov at the weekend.
“As Estonia showed the other night, Belarus will look at this game as one they potentially could win. With that in mind it’ll be an extremely difficult game. They have talented players in their squad, they have players in season as well.”
Saturday’s match in Tallinn was played in hot and humid conditions which will have been draining on the legs of O’Neill’s players, many of whom had not played for a month prior to the match.
Northern Ireland arrived in Belarus to find similar weather, but with kickoff on Tuesday not until 9.45pm things should have cooled off considerably.
“We come into the game mentally in a good place because we won the last game, our mental tiredness is not the same, so that should be the key factor for us,” O’Neill said. “We look forward to the game and we have everything to gain by trying to go out and get another three points.”
O’Neill was playing the last time Northern Ireland won a double-header away from home – against Lithuania and Latvia in the summer of 1993 – but a long-awaited repeat appears in reach.
“The carrot is huge for us,” O’Neill said. “The ability to have 12 points after four games will be a big achievement, and put us in a strong position. That’s all the motivation the players need.”