Michael O’Neill says nothing less than three points will suffice when Northern Ireland take on San Marino in Belfast this afternoon.
“It’s a game that we must win,” the Northern Ireland manager told media at the traditional eve of matchday press conference earlier today.
He also revealed midfielder Alistair McCann is the only player who has had to withdraw from the squad - he has a calf injury - and pointed out that the 24 other players in the panel have trained well in the run-up to tomorrow’s UEFA Euro 2024 qualifier at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park (2pm).
O’Neill is expecting his team to have the bulk of possession in the contest and he is keen for them to show more attacking verve.
The Northern Ireland boss readily admits things have not gone according to plan in the Euro qualifying series.
At this stage in the campaign he expected to be competing for a place in the final tournament in Germany next summer, but it has not panned out that way.
Injuries have robbed him of several key experienced players in the six matches in Group H so far – and he has had to rely on younger players who are still learning the ropes in international football.
In his Manager’s View column in the matchday programme for the San Marino game, he points out: “The younger players in the squad have been thrust into the international spotlight sooner than I would have liked. I thought integrating a raft of inexperienced players into the panel would have kicked in after Euro 2024 in Germany.
“However, I think they have done well, and that gives me plenty of optimism going forward. We must now use the remaining games in the group to establish a winning mentality in the squad, to prepare us for FIFA World Cup qualifiers in 2025.
“The green shoots I have seen coming through will, naturally, have to be nurtured and helped to grow and burst into life. We can start that process with the remaining four fixtures in Group H, starting with the game against San Marino.”
Tomorrow’s opponents have not registered any points in the group to date, however O’Neill said Northern Ireland will not be taking them lightly.
“We have done our homework on them, as we do with all teams we come up against, and I believe we have a game plan that will have the desired effect,” he pointed out.
San Marino currently hold the dubious honour of being the lowest ranked international team in the world, as they prop up a list of more than 200 nations.
Their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign has yielded six defeats in six matches with 21 goals conceded and none scored.
A brace from striker Dion Charles gave Northern Ireland a 2-0 victory in Serravalle back in March, while in the most recent round of fixtures – in September – San Marino lost 4-0 to Denmark in Copenhagen and were beaten 4-0 at home by Slovenia.
San Marino head coach Fabrizio Costantini, who only has a couple of full-time professional players in his squad, typically employs a 5-3-2 formation.
In an attempt to limit their opponents’ goalscoring opportunities, San Marino use a low block and it’s common to see them shape up more like a 5-3-1-1 or even a 6-3-1 out of possession as they sit deep and only look to commit more players forward in counter-attacking situations.