GRANT McCann insists Northern Ireland cannot afford to be in awe of Portugal when they step out at the Dragao Stadium next week.
Facing talent that includes arguably the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael O’Neill’s squad has already been written off by many pundits and fans.
Northern Ireland have laboured to just a solitary point from their two Group F qualifiers to date.
An opening 2-0 defeat to Russia in Moscow was followed by an ugly 1-1 draw against minnows Luxembourg at Windsor Park.
The malaise has prompted fears of a mauling in Porto next Tuesday night.
But for McCann – who returns to the squad after missing the last three games – Northern Ireland have nothing to lose.
“Nobody is giving us a chance of getting any kind of positive result in Portugal. Experts, pundits, the media, even some fans, are all doubting us,” the Peterborough midfielder said.
“It is a massive test, no doubt about that. But there should be no pressure on us. We have nothing to lose because expectation levels outside of the camp are so low.
“We aim to go out and give it our best shot. There are no easy games in international football these days, as Luxembourg proved last month.
“We have to prove that point by giving Portugal a tough night at the office.”
Northern Ireland supporters’ spirits were raised and dashed earlier this week as Ronaldo’s injury news emerged from Spain.
Initially the Real Madrid star was ruled out of his country’s qualifiers with Russia (today) and Northern Ireland with a shoulder injury.
But his club later confirmed that their attacking genius would join up with his international team-mates this week.
For McCann, Ronaldo’s inclusion – or exclusion – is immaterial as Northern Ireland prepare to take on a side that reached the semi-finals of this summer’s Euros.
“Ronaldo gets all the attention, but they have other players who can cause plenty of damage.
“They are not a one-man team and we have to be wary of the other players in the squad.
“But we have to go out and focus on our own abilities and what we can achieve.
“I remember a few years ago we got a 1-1 draw with Portugal at Windsor Park in a friendly when Warren Feeney scored. We didn’t stand back and let Portugal play that night and we have to do the same this time.”
McCann admits he was a frustrated spectator as Northern Ireland lost in Moscow and drew with Luxembourg.
“It was difficult having to watch the lads, but I thought they did well against Russia,” he added.
“They had a good shape and were unlucky not to come away with some reward.
“The Luxembourg game was disappointing because I think the lads did well in the first half and then just got caught late on with an unlucky goal.
“But we move on now and we can’t dwell on the past.”
McCann was omitted by O’Neill for the opening qualifiers as he finalised his club future at Peterborough.
“The club policy is that players who have one year left on their contracts are automatically placed on the transfer list,” McCann revealed.
“So I wanted to sort things out there and Michael (O’Neill) and I agreed I was better focusing on that than worrying about international football too.
“Thankfully I have done well this season and have been offered a new deal, so Michael has called me back in and I am delighted.
“Everyone knows I love representing my country and I wear the green shirt with pride.
“It was obviously disappointing to miss the two qualifiers, but club football is my bread and butter and it was important that I sorted out my future.
“Now that seems to be done I can focus on Northern Ireland again.”