A hostile reception awaits Ireland in Belgrade on September 5 for the opening qualifier against a Serbian side brimful of talent but low on confidence, and it won’t get much more welcoming for the trips to Moldova and Austria in October and November.
With only the top team securing a route to Russia, and second not guaranteeing a play-off shot, room for error is small.
O’Neill, who last night admitted he still hadn’t signed the contract renewal verbally agreed with the FAI last month, praised his players for reaching the last-16 in France while reminding them of the imminent task at hand.
“The players should be delighted with themselves but it’s not to sit back and think ‘Didn’t I do well?’” said O’Neill TV3 on their Euro 2016 final live broadcast.
“Okay, they’ve a week or two to lay on some beach somewhere and think they’ve enhanced their reputation, both individually and collectively, but the World Cup games are coming around very quickly you’ve got to get your mindset back on to it again.
“We’re in a difficult group and we don’t want to go out of the competition before it starts in that sense.
“These games are tough so our players will have to go and step up again. But will they have the confidence they didn’t have two years ago? Hopefully.”
Expressing his wish for John O’Shea to delay his international retirement in order to bolster his defensive options for the next campaign, O’Neill revealed the Ireland vice-captain took news of his axing for the must-win game against Italy like a consummate professional.
O’Shea was one of four regulars to miss out for the game in Lille. Reflecting on his rationale for the overhaul, O’Neill said his side had shown Belgium too much respect, adding the 3-0 thrashing convinced him that fresh legs were required for the group concluder.
“We needed more energy because I thought the Italian players new in their team for our game would want to impress. In fact, I would have preferred if Italy had stuck with their first-team for the game.”
Meanwhile, the Derryman couldn’t resist venting his ire at Germany boss Joachim Löw. After his World champions bowed out in the semi-final, Löw hit out the expanded format, claiming the standard of football consequentially suffered.
“He has a moan about everything, even about us when we beat them in the qualifier last October,” sighed O’Neill.
“He does like to moan a bit. He doesn’t like to moan when they win the game themselves. With some of the bigger nations, it is a bit like it the FA Cup when top sides didn’t want to travel to non-league sides in case they were embarrassed.”