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O’Neill’s men set for Euro double header

Liam Boyce is hopeful of earning a starting place in the games against Estonia and Belarus Liam Boyce is hopeful of earning a starting place in the games against Estonia and Belarus
By Conor McParland

NORTHERN Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has stressed the importance of securing six points from this week’s double header of Euro 2020 qualifiers.

O’Neill’s men travel to Estonia on Saturday (kick-off, 5pm) before another away game against Belarus on Tuesday night (kick-off, 7.45pm).

Northern Ireland are top of Group C after triumphs of both their upcoming opponents at home in their opening two qualifiers in March.

Estonia and Belarus have yet to win a point in the group so far and with home and away fixtures against heavyweights Netherlands and Germany to come later this year, O’Neill is hoping to keep on power with both.

“We got six points in March and this is stage two now – we have to replicate that,” he explained.

“It will be more difficult away from home, but I do believe it is possible and we would then essentially go into a group of three with Germany and Holland.

“We would have a points advantage because of the extra games and that’s the situation we have tried to create to possibly put more pressure on the bigger nations.

“Our squad’s in a good place. There is a lot of youth in it but we still have the core there as well.”

Northern Ireland beat Estonia 2-0 at Windsor Park in March thanks to an opener from Niall McGinn and a penalty from captain Steven Davis, but will face sweltering conditions in Tallinn come kick-off on Saturday.

The Estonians haven’t won at home in five games but did inflict one of the Green and White Army’s most humiliating defeats in 2011.

Under Nigel Worthington’s watch, a team which included current squad members Aaron Hughes, Craig Cathcart and Steven Davis suffered a 4-1 defeat at the A Le Coq Arena.

The team has come a long way since and O’Neill’s squad includes a first international senior call-up for Oxford United midfielder Mark Sykes.

Hearts full-back Michael Smith returns from injury but Aberdeen winger Niall McGinn misses out after suffering ankle ligament damage in training in April.

Sheffield United midfielder is also missing from the squad after declaring himself unavailable for the opening two qualifiers in March.

Michael O’Neill’s options up front and in-form Burton Albion striker Liam Boyce is hoping to bring his good end of season club form to the international stage.

“I’ve probably played the most out of all the strikers in the squad so far,” Boyce told the Northern Ireland podcast.

“Big Josh (Magennis) has been scoring goals as well and he’s obviously playing at a higher level than me in the Championship. But because I scored the five goals at the end of the season I suppose you could say I’m in form. When you play more you have that little bit more match sharpness.

“But I need to show Michael O’Neill what I can do in the training sessions leading up to the game. He always says that when you join up with the international squad it’s your chance to come in and show what you can do.”

The former Cliftonville striker says he’s delighted to be named in the squad as they push to claim another six points.

“It’s brilliant to be involved, especially with such important games coming up,” added the 28-year-old.

“And for me it’s just good to carry on the season. Towards the end of the campaign (with Burton Albion) I was starting to score goals again and when it’s like that you really don’t want the season to stop.

“Hopefully we can keep the momentum going by getting two good results and we can look forward to the games later in the year.”

As for the Belarus game, early build-up to next Tuesday’s clash in Borisov has been overshadowed by the potential risk of contaminated food following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in neighbouring Ukraine in 1986.

However, travelling fans will be hoping for another three points after a late Josh Magennis goal secured a 2-1 victory in the first group game between the sides in Belfast.

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