O’Neill targets first victory

Michael O’Neill is desperate to end his wait for a first victory as Northern Ireland manager against Azerbaijan tonight.

O’Neill has presided over three draws and three defeats since taking over from Nigel Worthington but has a real chance to end his first year in charge on a high note in the World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park.

A morale-boosting 1-1 draw against overwhelming favourites Portugal last month went a long way to bringing a feelgood factor back to the squad but the former Shamrock Rovers boss knows there is nothing like a home win to raise spirits.

“We’ve played three qualifying games now, with a loss and two draws. It’s time for us to put three points on the board,” he said.

“That players know that and I know that. I’m desperate to get my first win as manager and to get the first win with this group of players.

“The players can move on very quickly, they go back to their clubs and refocus so it’s probably the manager that carries a bad result around longer; I don’t have another game to get it out of my system.

“It’s hugely important that we start winning games now. We have a four-month break after this game and you want to go into that break on the back of a positive result and a positive performance. If we don’t it will be a long three months for me.”

Most of Northern Ireland’s best results in recent years have involved plucky displays against higher-ranked sides, while the majority of disappointments have been when failing to see off less fancied opposition.

There is no doubt that the home side are expected to win tonight but O’Neill does not see that as a burden.

“Dealing with expectation is talked about a lot but if you’re a team that has expectations on you then you’re doing something right,” he said.

“If you can deal with that expectation then you’re doing something right too. That’s our aim, simple as that

“We want to create a group that people do expect things of because then we know we’re going in the right direction.

“If people don’t expect anything then I’m not doing my job properly.

“We have a different level of expectation on us than in our previous game. That’s a challenge for us and it’s one we’re prepared to meet head on.”

O’Neill has a couple of tricky selection calls to make after his side’s heroics in Porto last time out, with the likes of Corry Evans and Oliver Norwood likely to drop out despite their brave performances against Cristiano Ronaldo and company. The likes of Chris Brunt and Shane Ferguson are back after missing that match with injury, while Dean Shiels is a strong contender to return to the starting XI as Kyle Lafferty’s attacking foil.

O’Neill conceded that he would have to deliver some bad news. “One of the most difficult things is leaving a player out when they’ve played well, but it’s part of the job,” he said.

O’Neill’s opposite number Berti Vogts believes his side will go in as underdogs, with a spate of injuries likely to disrupt his plans.

“I am very impressed with how we have trained here and also for four or five days in Azerbaijan but there is training and then there is a football match, it is a big difference,” said the German coach.

“We have a good team spirit but we are missing seven players. We are disappointed to be missing so many.

“When our players see the teams the Northern Ireland players represent they see the quality of their team.”

Meanwhile, Steven Gerrard insists there are “still a few more chapters to be written” with England as he prepares to win his 100th cap in tonight’s encounter with Sweden in Stockholm.

The England captain admits the exciting crop of youngsters at head coach Roy Hodgson’s disposal are helping to banish any thoughts of bringing down the curtain on his international career.

Gerrard will join Peter Shilton, Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Billy Wright and David Beckham in reaching the century mark for England.

But helping England to qualify for the next World Cup is more important to the 32-year-old than the possibility of overhauling Beckham on 115 and becoming his country’s most capped outfield player.

Gerrard said: “I can’t compare myself to a few of the people who have reached 100 caps because they are World Cup winners. It is just very flattering for me to get over the 100 mark and join the other five players who have all been top players in their eras.

“My England journey has been full of ups and downs, probably the same as a few other England players as well.

“I still feel there are a few chapters to write. I don’t feel as if I’m coming to the end.’’

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