O’Neill delight at N Ireland form

Published: Wednesday 15th October 2014 by The News Editor

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Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill admits his history-making side are well ahead of schedule on the road to Euro 2016 after claiming a third successive win, with star striker Kyle Lafferty already setting his sights on the finals in France.

No Northern Ireland side have ever before won their first three matches in any World Cup or European campaign, but O’Neill’s men secured a wonderful 2-0 victory to add Claudio Ranieri’s Greece to a list of victims that already included Hungary and the Faroe Islands.

Jamie Ward’s second international goal, a deflected eighth-minute effort, got the ball rolling before the Derby man set up Lafferty for a superb second on the counter-attack.

O’Neill is keen to play the pragmatist, insisting third place and a play-off remains his primary objective, but he also had a feeling that a big result was in the offing in Athens.

“We wouldn’t have expected to win our first three games but I had a good feeling about this one,” he said.

“I said to the players if we had six points after four games we’d probably be relatively pleased, now it’s nine from three.

“I thought we were magnificent. The players are delighted too, but I don’t think they’re surprised.

“They believed they could come here and get something from the game.

“The players have performed so well that there was confidence in them and we got a performance of real discipline and excellent quality when we had the opportunity to break and counter attack.”

Leading the dressing room cheer was Lafferty, who has scored in each of the last three matches and is fast becoming a truly talismanic figure with man-of-the-match displays in each of them.

The Norwich striker did not score at all in O’Neill’s first campaign, struggling for form, fitness and being sent off against Portugal.

But he is now turning in performances of the highest quality and was not shy about setting his sights on a first major championship appearance.

“I’m lost for words,” he told Sky Sports 2.

“We won comfortably in the end. We believe we can qualify for Euro 2016 and we have now sent out a massive message to the other nations in the group.

“It was lovely to score again and that makes it three in three for me which is very pleasing, but tonight is not about me.

“It is about the team who worked for this and are delighted with the result.”

The 27-year-old has now scored 12 times in 40 appearances for his country, and O’Neill sees a player who finally matured into a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

“Kyle has all the attributes to play right at the top level of the game – pace, technique, power, size. What he has done in the last three games is bring it all together,” said the manager.

“International football suits him, particularly away from home when there is space.

“When he plays like that, he is as good as any centre forward that you’d wish to have.

“What we’ve seen in the last three games with his focus is a top class international striker developing. Long may it continue.”

Ranieri, the well-travelled former Chelsea coach, was jeered from the stands at the final whistle and faces a battle to persuade a sceptical public he remains the right man to lead Greece.

Despite being top seeds in Group F, they have lost successive home games and have just one point following Saturday’s draw in Finland.

The Italian was quick to play down concerns over his own future and that of his side.

“In my opinion everything is still open in the group. We are in a bad situation but we need change and when you need change, you need time,” he said.

“This can only be done by playing more together but there are 21 points still out there for us to got so nothing is lost yet.”

Ranieri offered some praise for the away side, but blamed his team for opening the door.

“Was the game won or lost? I think the truth is in the middle: they played their game and we could not stop them.”

Published: Wednesday 15th October 2014 by The News Editor

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