O’Neill: Romania game “massive”

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Published: Monday 30th March 2015 by The News Editor

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Michael O’Neill believes his Northern Ireland side are one win away from turning their Euro 2016 dream into a reality.

O’Neill’s men have been one of the surprise packages of the qualifying campaign, with Sunday’s 2-1 defeat of Finland making it four wins from five matches.

That leaves them second in Group F, four points clear of Hungary and just a point shy of table-topping Romania.

Anghel Iordanescu’s side come to Windsor Park on June 13 and O’Neill believes success then would go a long way to ensuring a first major tournament in 30 years.

“The message is simple. We have given ourselves a fantastic chance, and we have to make sure we take our chance again in June,” he said, after Kyle Lafferty’s brilliant brace in Belfast.

“The Romania game becomes massive now. If you can win that game, then it would be hard to think we won’t get to the Euros.

“It takes on extra significance. Do we feel 18 points will be enough? Possibly.

“If we can get to 15 points with four games to go, that has to be our target at this moment in time. We will have the chance to go top of the group against Romania.”

The game comes at an awkward time, with the English and Scottish seasons having broken up for the summer, but O’Neill hopes that does not have a major impact.

He is relying on dedication from his players and two friendlies – one against Qatar on May 31 and another against Wales – to get his side in shape.

The Wales game has yet to be confirmed by the two associations, but O’Neill is already treating it as a done deal.

“We have two good warm-up games before that so preparation will be excellent,” he said.

“Our preparation in June will be vital, and the warm-up games against Qatar and Wales will be crucial.

“But players finish their seasons in May, and there is an onus on certain players to maintain their own fitness.”

If fit Aaron Hughes is sure to become his country’s most capped outfield player in that run of fixtures, with his current tally of 95 leaving him level with David Healy.

He had to make do with bench duty against Finland, with O’Neill making the tough choice to pair Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley in the middle while favouring Conor McLaughlin at right-back.

“Leaving out Aaron was maybe the most difficult decision I have had to make in my three years, in terms of team selection,” the manager confessed.

“Everyone knows what Aaron Hughes is about and what his qualities are as a player and individual. I sat with Aaron a few nights ago and talked about his situation at Brighton.

“He hasn’t played much club football in recent tines, and he fully understood where I was coming from.

“And Aaron being Aaron, he took it in his professional style. He is still a huge part of this squad, but now we have competition for places which is good.

“Jonny (Evans) showed what a top class player he is, and he showed it at Hampden against Scotland the other night. So it is good.

“But it is only a matter of time before Aaron gets his 96th cap and goes on to win 100.”

Published: Monday 30th March 2015 by The News Editor

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