Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill believes their Euro 2020 qualifier win over Estonia was a coming-of-age moment for his side’s younger players before they look to repeat the trick against Belarus on Sunday.
Thursday night’s 2-0 win was Northern Ireland’s first competitive victory since they beat the Czech Republic in September 2017, before the likes of Jordan Jones, Jamal Lewis and Bailey Peacock-Farrell were in the squad.
“I think for any of the younger players, those that have come in since the World Cup campaign, they haven’t played in qualifiers,” O’Neill said.
“The Nations League was in its infancy in terms of the significance of those games, they didn’t have the same intensity of a Euro or World Cup qualifying game.
“Certainly for Jordan, Jamal and Bailey, playing that game was a big thing to come through and to have won it.
“I think all these things help you as an international player. Everyone was in good form and the key thing is to build on that.”
O’Neill now has decisions to make on whether or not to freshen up his side. While keen to build on the momentum of Thursday’s win, he is aware that the majority of his players are not getting regular minutes at club level.
“We’re asking them to play Thursday-Sunday and we do need another high level of performance, intensity and energy, particularly in that early part of the game,” he said.
Corry Evans and Gavin Whyte remain unavailable with hamstring and thigh problems respectively, but Gareth McAuley, who also sat out on Thursday, is fit again after hamstring troubles of his own.
Belarus coach Igor Kruishenko is braced for a ‘tough’ night out in Belfast.
The visitors go into the match on the back of a 4-0 hiding from Holland in
Rotterdam on Thursday and must quickly bounce back if they are to take anything from this opening week of the campaign.
“We analysed the previous match statistically and in terms of our physical
condition we didn’t do too badly,” Kruishenko said through a translator.
“Of course it was a heavy defeat and a daunting result for us but we are
getting ready for the next game.
“I don’t really expect that Northern Ireland will seriously change their
tactics or style,” Kruishenko added. “We expect them to use quick wingers and to put pressure on in the centre of midfield.
“It will be a tough, aggressive game.”