Michael O’Neill has revealed the objective for Northern Ireland in the second half of their UEFA Euro 2024 qualification campaign is “to win as many games as we can”.
While he admits his team are not where he envisaged they would be in Qualifying Group H at this stage, with three points from five matches, he wants to use the remaining five fixtures to embed a winning mentality in a squad that is peppered with players who are inexperienced at senior international level.
O’Neill has had to rely on less experienced players during the campaign to date because the growing list of players unavailable due to injury is packed with seasoned operators.
And he will have to call upon less experienced players once again this evening when Northern Ireland face Kazakhstan in the Astana Arena.
Craig Cathcart, who has more than 70 caps under his belt, limped out of the Euro qualifier against Slovenia in Ljubljana on Thursday, as did fellow defender Ciaron Brown, and both are out of the squad for today’s game.
However, the Northern Ireland boss is optimistic that defender Daniel Ballard, who missed the match against the Slovenians after picking up a knock while playing for Sunderland last weekend, will be available for selection.
The focus during yesterday’s traditional matchday minus one press conference was largely on how Northern Ireland performed in the 4-2 defeat to the Slovenians.
Although they showed lots of attacking verve in that game, the manager admitted the defensive display was not up to scratch.
He said the shape of the team out of possession could have been better – and that’s something he and his coaching staff have worked on with the players ahead of the game against the Kazakhs.
The Northern Ireland manager also said he would not be writing off the current campaign so he can concentrate on the qualifiers for the World Cup in 2026. He said the objective for the team is to win games in the remaining five fixtures to breed a winning mentality, starting with today’s game against the Kazakhs.
Kazakhstan will be aiming to bounce back after losing to Finland by a goal to nil in Astana on Thursday.
It was a game of few chances and the defeat meant Kazakhstan slipped to fourth in the Group H table on nine points from five games. Finland are top with 12 from five, while top seeds Denmark are second with 10, just ahead of Slovenia (10 points) on goal difference.
The 30,000-capacity Astana Arena is expected to be full to the rafters for this evening’s game, with around 200 Northern Ireland fans in the crowd. It kicks off at 7 o’clock local time, which is two o’clock BST.
Although most of the Kazakhstan squad play in the Kazakhstan Premier League, and are not well known outside their homeland, O’Neill says they are quality players and he is expecting a tough game at the Astana Arena, which has a 3G surface.
Astana FC striker Abat Aimbetov, who came off the bench to score the only goal of the game in Belfast back in June, is expected to lead the line for Kazakhstan.
He will likely be joined up top by Baktiyor Zainutdinov, who is one of a handful of players in Kazakhstan’s squad currently playing their club football outside of their homeland. Zainutdinov stars for Turkish Super Lig side Besiktas.
Whoever plays up front for Northern Ireland will have to contend with centre back Nuraly Alip, who is seen as a rising star. Alip currently plies his trade with Zenit St Petersburg in Russia.
Kazakhstan typically set up in a 5-4-1 shape that appears more like a 3-4-3 formation when they are attacking. They are also adept at playing on the counter attack.