Northern Ireland ready and able to grasp World Cup opportunity - Michael O’Neill

Northern Ireland’s players are ready to grasp their opportunity in their World Cup play-off with Switzerland, according to boss Michael O’Neill.

The Northern Irish entertain the Swiss in Belfast tonight in the first part of a double header that will determine which of the two nations will be in Russia next summer.

While Switzerland have made the past three World Cups, O’Neill’s team are looking to end a 32-year exile from the finals, and become only the fourth side in the country’s history to make it to the global tournament.

O’Neill is fully aware of the importance of their next two fixtures for the nation and is confident his squad can seize the chance afforded them.

"I see in this squad an opportunity they don’t want to waste," O’Neill said.

"But equally they’ve done everything so far and I think they will do everything in the next two games to make it a reality.

"These players have experienced a lot of good and bad.

"The one thing I would say to them is don’t fear the situation, embrace the situation and make sure whatever happens, when you look back there are no regrets.

"We all know the prize is massive and what it means to everyone in Northern Ireland, the players, staff, Irish Football Association, everyone in Northern Ireland.

"Our focus is on how we get through the two games and I see a reassurance in the players and self-belief that has grown over a period of three to four years and put them in this position."

Northern Ireland have become used to success over the past three seasons, but before then there were barren spells that O’Neill thinks still fuels his players today.

They were ranked 129th early in his reign and their last meeting with the Swiss in 2004 came in the midst of a run that included just one win in almost four years.

"It wasn’t an overnight fix and it never will be when you’re a small country," added O’Neill, whose first game at the helm was in 2012.

"The players deserve enormous credit, they had to turn it around themselves. You can get into a habit of things being poor and losing and that mindset. It takes guts to change it and the players did that. That’s something we hang on to.

"The good thing we have now is that when you’ve been through those experiences, you don’t want to go back. That’s the only motivation you need to maintain at the level it’s at, for us to progress to the (Euro 2016) finals, to get to the last 16, to now being in a World Cup play-off.

"The players don’t want to let it go."

Switzerland faced an unwanted distraction prior to the game when Udinese demanded injured midfielder Valon Behrami left the Swiss camp and return to his club.

The Serie A side threatened legal action if that request was not granted, though Behrami is in Belfast and the Swiss have been unmoved, even if they do not expect the midfielder to be involved in either game.

"Behrami is here now and as far as we’re concerned he’s not going back," a Switzerland Football Association spokesperson said.

"Behrami told us he talked with his club coach and he had agreed he could leave for Switzerland. Petkovic said on Monday that we would never take any risk. We won’t do any foolish things with the player."

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