Michael O’Neill admits he is excited to get Northern Ireland’s UEFA Euro 2024 qualification campaign up and running.
Stage one of his team’s mission to reach the European Championship finals in Germany next year is an away game against San Marino at the Serravalle Stadium this evening (7.45 kick-off GMT).
The Northern Ireland manager is without key playing personnel for the Group H encounter - Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Stuart Dallas, Shayne Lavery and Alistair McCann are all missing through injury - but he firmly believes he has the squad to get the job done.
More than 1000 Northern Ireland fans have made the trip to the small country located near the Adriatic coast within north-central Italy and they can expect to see a team reflective of the 24-strong panel chosen for this game and the home qualifier against Finland on Sunday: a blend of youth and experience.
Veteran defender Craig Cathcart, in the absence of captain Davis and vice captain Evans, will don the captain’s armband for the first time as he earns his 70th cap.
O’Neill told media yesterday that he is excited to be in charge of the senior men’s team for a second spell and excited to get another qualification campaign under way.
He revealed he has been impressed by the younger players in the squad and said they bring a freshness and extra energy to the set-up.
The Northern Ireland boss insisted both he and his players will not be taking San Marino lightly even though they have really struggled to get results on the international stage down the years.
“I don’t think there’s any chance that we won’t have our eye on the ball and that the focus won’t be there,” he said.
O’Neill further promised his team will be aiming to put points on the board this evening. “It’s important that we get off to a good start in the group,” he added.
San Marino have not won an international fixture since 2004 and have not scored a goal against a European nation since losing 2-1 at home to Lithuania 12 months ago. And nine goals were conceded in four fixtures against Estonia and Malta in the UEFA Nations League without reply.
However, they did register a 1-1 draw with St Lucia - a team 39 places above them in the FIFA World Rankings - in November. San Marino are currently bottom of those rankings in 211th place, while Northern Ireland are 59th.
Most of the players in the San Marino squad play their club football in San Marino, although a handful ply their trade across the border in Italy. Among them are defender Mirko Palazzi (72 caps), who plays for Cattolica in Serie D, and Nicola Nanni (27 caps), a striker with Serie C side Olbia.
The most capped player in the current squad is captain and striker Matteo Vitaioli, who has played 81 times for his country, scoring once. He plays his club football with La Fiorita in his homeland.
The other games in Group H today will see group favourites Denmark take on Finland in Copenhagen and Kazakhstan come up against Slovenia in Astana.