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Friday 16 Jun 2023
Northern Ireland facing huge challenge in Copenhagen

Michael O’Neill believes tonight’s encounter with Denmark is the toughest assignment his squad will face during their UEFA Euro 2024 qualification campaign.

But the Northern Ireland senior men’s team manager is being bullish about his side’s chances of getting a positive result in the Group H game at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen (7.45 start BST).

Although he will be without eight senior players due to injury, he has been buoyed by the attitude and skill levels displayed by the younger members of his squad in the training camps leading up to the double header against Denmark and Kazakhstan, whom his team face in Belfast on Monday.

The Danes, top seeds in the group, are still smarting after letting a two-goal lead slip against Kazakhstan in their last outing.

Denmark defeated Finland at home in their opening Group H fixture in March before losing 3-2 against the Kazakhs in Astana and O’Neill is expecting a backlash in the Danish capital.

However, the Northern Ireland boss firmly believes his players can cope in Copenhagen even though they will be up against extremely strong opposition.

Talking to the media yesterday, he acknowledged that Denmark are "a tier one side" who have been consistently good in recent years.

He noted they have a squad of experienced players and was full of praise for Manchester United midfielder Christian Eriksen, the man who makes the Danes tick. He said it was great to see Eriksen back playing international football following his collapse at the last Euros.

O’Neill further revealed his side will be a mix of youth and experience at the Parken tonight, adding that he has “every confidence” the younger players in the team will perform on the big stage.

Northern Ireland began their Euro 2024 qualification campaign in March with a 2-0 away win against San Marino and a 1-0 home defeat to Finland.

O’Neill pointed out: "Obviously we were disappointed with the home game against Finland. We felt we deserved more than we got, so we’ve got to try and make up points somewhere along the line. This is a hard place to play at, but we’ll go with the intention of trying to find something from the game."

He revealed the younger players in his squad have a positive attitude and "have no fear" and he expects them to embrace the occasion in Copenhagen.

In the past couple of years Denmark have been semi-finalists at Euro 2020 (staged in 2021 due to Covid) and reached the World Cup final tournament in Qatar, although they had a disappointing campaign where they failed to get out of their group.

Since then a bright new Danish star has burst onto the scene in the form of Atalanta striker Rasmus Hojlund. He scored a hat-trick in the game against Finland in March - in his first start for his country - and followed that up with a brace against the Kazakhs.

The experienced operators in Kasper Hjulmand’s squad include familiar names such as Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojberg, Nice goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, Barcelona defender Andreas Christensen, AC Milan defender Simon Kjaer and RB Leipzig striker Yussuf Poulsen.

And Brentford trio Mathias Jensen, Mikkel Damsgaard and Mathias Jorgensen are becoming regulars in the team. However, their Brentford team-mate Christian Norgaard (midfielder) will not feature tonight as he has an achilles injury.

Jonny Evans, who will captain Northern Ireland as he earns his 101st cap, said he and his fellow defenders are aware of the threat posed by Hojlund in particular but they have a plan to deal with him.

It is understood there will be just over 30,000 fans at the 40,000-capacity stadium tonight, with around 1600 of them from Northern Ireland.