Michael O’Neill insists Northern Ireland are not viewing their remaining Euro 2016 qualifiers as “five cup finals” ahead of a potentially crucial table-topping encounter against Romania.
Northern Ireland have enjoyed a fine Group F campaign thus far, winning four of five matches and losing only once in the reverse fixture in Bucharest.
That return has left them just one point adrift of group leaders Romania and victory in Saturday’s match at Windsor Park would leave them well placed to qualify for the European Championship for the first time in their history.
However, manager O’Neill is keen to temper expectations.
“We’re not looking at it as five cup finals or over-emphasising the significance of this game,” he told Sky Sports.
“The important thing for us is we will be competitive right until the end of the group. The four wins we have had to date will ensure that and we aim to hopefully get another two victories as soon as possible.”
Part of Northern Ireland’s success has been down to the form of striker Kyle Lafferty, whose return of five goals in qualifying is bettered only by England’s Danny Welbeck.
The Norwich City man, who spent the latter part of the season on loan at Turkish side Rizespor, credits O’Neill for his prolific form.
“I put it down to the trust and confidence Michael has shown in me,” he said. “He told me I can play anyone off the park when I’m at my best but that I haven’t shown it enough.
“He said to go onto the pitch and give it my all, and that it’s going to have a massive say in how the result goes. He has helped me believe in myself.”
Northern Ireland may be in confident mood, but they face a Romania side that has not lost for just over a year and their unbeaten run has stretched to nine matches.
Coach Anghel Iordanescu – who has doubts over Razvan Rat and Lucian Sanmartean – is expecting a tough challenge in Belfast, though.
“Northern Ireland are a strong team with a good nucleus of players, a team that caused us trouble in Bucharest and will undoubtedly do the same on their home ground on Saturday,” he said.
“They have a very strong core of players who put us under pressure in Bucharest, and I expect it will be the same at Windsor Park.”
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