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Friday 17 Nov 2023
O’Neill upbeat ahead of clash with Finland

Michael O’Neill insists Northern Ireland will be fully committed to achieving a positive result in today’s Euro qualifier against Finland.

The Northern Ireland squad has been hit by injuries as the Euro 2024 qualification campaign draws to a close.

It’s a narrative which has been front and centre over the course of the campaign, however the Northern Ireland boss is remaining upbeat ahead of this evening’s match in Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium (5 o’clock kick-off UK time).

And O’Neill is adamant the players in his youthful squad will rise to the occasion in the penultimate encounter in Group H, which will be played in temperatures below freezing.

At the traditional eve of matchday press conference he said that despite having to field teams lacking senior international experience throughout the campaign he has seen positives in the performances.

"I understand the performances will be evaluated on results but with these younger players they need positivity. You want young players looking forward to coming away and playing for their country, not having reservations or an insecurity or a lack of confidence about doing it,” he said.

His squad for this evening’s game features around a dozen players who are aged 21 and under.

"This is a brilliant group of players to work with, probably the easiest group of players that I have had in my time as an international manager because they are just so keen to do well,” he explained.

"They are learning on the job and so what gives me the reason to stay upbeat is the motivation that the players give me because of their application, how they have worked on the training pitch and tried to bring those things forward into the games."

He also dispelled any notion that the game against the Finns is a dead rubber.

"You play 10 international games in a year so you cannot neglect any of them. None of them have any less significance," he said.

"We are in a situation where we have not won a lot of games in this campaign or in the previous campaign, so the important thing is that when we get the opportunity to play, we try to reverse that.”

He has had to call up four players from the U21s squad this week - striker Ross McCausland, defender Michael Forbes, midfielder Terry Devlin and goalkeeper Stephen McMullan – as well as slightly more experienced midfielder Caolan Boyd-Munce. All five are uncapped at senior level.

That quintet have replaced defender and captain Jonny Evans, midfielders Paul Smyth, Paddy Lane and Brad Lyons plus regular keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

Shea Charles is suspended for the match, following his dismissal in last month’s game against Slovenia, while fellow midfielder George Saville will captain the side as he earns his 50th cap.

O’Neill is expecting a tough match against Finland, whose qualification campaign petered out after they won four of their five opening matches in Group H, including a 1-0 win in Belfast back in March.

That game against Northern Ireland was a tight affair and the Northern Ireland manager believes this evening’s encounter will follow a similar pattern. He described Finland as a “solid and consistent team”.

Finland typically play with a back three and usually line-up in a 3-5-2 (5-3-2) formation. They play a short passing game but will occasionally vary this approach by playing longer balls to a target forward such as Joel Pohjanpalo, with fellow frontman Teemu Pukki adept at running in behind an opposition backline.

Former Norwich City star Pukki, who plays for Minnesota United in America’s MLS these days, is the most experienced and arguably the best known player in the Finnish squad. He has scored 38 goals for his country in 116 appearances. Pohjanpalo plays his club football with Venezia in Italy’s Serie B.

Finland’s captain is goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, the number one for Bayer Leverkusen. His club side are currently leading the way in Germany’s Bundesliga ahead of free-scoring Bayern Munich.