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Thursday 07 Sep 2023
O’Neill upbeat ahead of clash with Slovenia

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill says his side will be aiming for a victory in their UEFA Euro 2024 qualifier against Slovenia this evening.

He admitted it will be a tough game against the Slovenians in Ljubljana but insisted all the remaining matches in Group H in the qualifying series are “winnable”.

O’Neill wants to instil a winning mentality among his players, starting with tonight’s game at the 16,000-capacity Stozice Stadion.

He told the media yesterday he feels the team have been defensively sound in the group games to date, however he is aware they need to create more going forward if they are to get their qualification campaign back on track.

Around 850 Northern Ireland fans have made the trip to eastern Europe for the Euro qualifier in the Slovenian capital (19.45 BST start) and the manager is confident his players can produce a good performance.

Northern Ireland are without a raft of players once again due to injuries. Strikers Shayne Lavery and Dale Taylor withdrew from the squad at the weekend, while the latest casualty is Gavin Whyte, who has a hamstring problem and has been replaced in the panel by his Portsmouth team-mate Paddy Lane.

There was also an injury concern at the start of the week over Sunderland defender Daniel Ballard, however he has joined up with the squad in Slovenia.

O’Neill, whose team also face Kazakhstan away on Sunday, revealed Ballard picked up an ankle injury in Sunderland’s emphatic win over Southampton at the weekend. He said his fitness will be assessed ahead of today’s game but it may be more prudent to get him ready for the match against the Kazakhs.

It also emerged during yesterday’s traditional matchday minus one press conference that Craig Cathcart has signed for a new club following his departure from Watford over the summer. The experienced defender has signed a one-year contract with KV Kortrijk, who play in Belgium’s top flight.

Kazakhstan currently lie second in Group H on nine points thanks to three wins from four games, while Slovenia are fourth with seven points and Northern Ireland are in fifth place on three points.

Slovenia, whose results in the group to date have included a win away to Kazakhstan and a home draw with group favourites Denmark, are “technically very good”, according to O’Neill.

Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak is Slovenia’s number one and captain, while the Northern Ireland attack will also have to get the better of Serie A defenders Petar Stojanovic (Sampdoria) and Jaka Bijol (Udinese).

In the middle of the park they have an experienced operator in Jasmin Kurtic, once of Parma and Atalanta in Italy’s top flight who is now playing his club football in Romania with Universitatea Craoiva.

Sandi Lovric, who stars for Udinese in Serie A, can be found in the engine room as well alongside Panathinaikos pair Benjamin Verbic and Adam Cerin. However, another solid midfielder, Miha Zajc (Fenerbahce - TUR), misses tonight’s game through injury.

Andraz Sporar, who also plays for Panathinaikos in the Greek Super League, is Slovenia’s main goal threat these days alongside Benjamin Sesko, a 20-year-old who is making waves in the German Bundesliga with RB Leipzig.