Michael O’Neill is expecting a tough battle against high flying Denmark in Belfast tonight.
Denmark secured their qualification for UEFA Euro 2024 in Germany with a home win over Slovenia on Friday.
But O’Neill believes the Danes will be fully focused for the Group H qualifier at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park (7.45 start).
He expects Denmark boss Kasper Hjulmand to select some players who have not had much game time during their successful qualification campaign.
But the Northern Ireland boss said those players will still be dangerous as they will be keen to show their manager what they can do.
At yesterday’s traditional eve of matchday press conference, O’Neill also insisted his team will be well prepared for the game against the group leaders as they aim to bounce back with “something positive” following the 4-0 defeat away to Finland on Friday night.
And in his column in the matchday programme he points out: “Naturally, people will be questioning the character of the squad following the game in Helsinki, but I expect the players to show their character against the Danes.
“The emphasis in front of a full house at the National Stadium tonight will be on showing the best side of ourselves.”
Daniel Ballard and Ross McCausland are touch and go to make the game. Sunderland defender Ballard and Rangers winger McCausland, who made his senior debut against Finland, both picked up knocks in Helsinki.
But Southampton midfielder Shea Charles, who was suspended for the game against the Finns, is back for the match, the final fixture of Northern Ireland’s Euro 2024 qualification campaign.
Also in the panel is Queens Park Rangers winger Paul Smyth, who pulled out of the trip to Helsinki due to injury. However, he has now returned to the squad after receiving treatment at his club last week.
West Ham United defender Michael Forbes, who made his senior debut against the Finns, and Portsmouth midfielder Terry Devlin, who was part of the squad in Finland, have both switched to the Northern Ireland U21s for their game against England in Liverpool tomorrow night.
Denmark have a target “to win six out of six” tonight, according to Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who will wear the captain’s armband as he earns his 99th cap for his country.
He revealed to the media yesterday that Kasper Hjulmand set the Danish squad the target of winning their last six matches in Group H when the squad met up prior to their qualifiers in September.
So far they have won five out of five, securing a place at Euro 2024 in the process. Their 2-1 win against Slovenia in Copenhagen on Friday guaranteed them a place at the finals in Germany next summer, however they need a point tonight to ensure they will top the group.
The Danes, who started out as favourites to win Group H, are without several key squad members for the game in Belfast, including AC Milan defender and regular captain Simon Kjær, Manchester United pair Christian Eriksen and Rasmus Højlund plus Hoffenheim wing back Robert Skov, who are all absent through injury.
However, their squad is still packed with players who operate at the highest level of the game across Europe, including Premier League stars Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Tottenham Hotspur), Joachim Andersen (Crystal Palace), midfielders Mathias Jensen and Christian Norgaard (both Brentford) plus former Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen, who is now at Barcelona.
In keeping with Michael O’Neill’s thoughts on how the Danes will line up, Hjulmand told media yesterday that he will likely freshen up his team tonight, giving some fringe players the opportunity to cement their places in the squad for next summer. Celtic midfielder Matt O’Riley is expected to make his debut for the Danes.
The Denmark boss also insisted they will be playing to win and will not be taking the foot off the gas after celebrating Euro 2024 qualification back home over the weekend.
Around 1200 Denmark fans will be in the packed ground tonight to cheer their national team on.