NORTHERN Ireland manager Michael O’Neill hopes his players can capitalise on any uncertainty in the Russian ranks this evening.
Their Group F rivals are entering a period of transition under new manager Fabio Capello – who succeeded Dick Advocaat following a disappointing Euro Finals display in the summer.
Capello and his players have been casting doubt on Northern Ireland’s ability to pull off a giant-killing win today – ironically, seven years to the day from the historic 1-0 win over England at Windsor Park.
But for O’Neill, opportunity knocks for his players at the Lokomotiv Stadium.
“There have been changes with a new coach coming in and I’ve said before, I was surprised they did not progress further,” O’Neill said of Russia’s Euro 2012 adventure.
“I saw them in the summer and I thought they were hugely impressive in the first game. There has obviously been a lot of negative criticism given the strength of the squad, and I think the changes which have been created could certainly work in our favour.”
O’Neill has a number of difficult decisions to contend with himself as he prepares for his competitive managerial debut.
“There are difficult choices to make and that comes with the territory but I am concerned with putting on a good performance and trying to get a positive result, so the team will be selected with that in mind,” he added.
“We have to not only play on Tuesday night against Luxembourg but also have to consider the logistics of getting home and arranging training so the team has been selected for these reasons too.
“The magnitude of this game (against Russia) is huge. We have to make sure we have a starting 11 which is as game-ready, and with as many minutes under their belts as possible.
“Look back at Finland for instance, with Steven Davis. He had just come back from an injury which means mental and physical facts have to be considered and are key in my mind.”
Within three friendlies, O’Neill has recorded one draw including 12 conceded goals, which clearly makes for difficult reading.
But with the trio of practice runs out of the way, the former Shamrock Rovers boss has real business to address.
“The expectations are all on Russia, not us,” he said.
“We are the underdogs, yes. Russia have a formidable coach and as a small nation we can only benefit from the whole experience.
“But we will make things as difficult as we can for them. I think, particularly with the resources we have, friendlies are difficult for us.
“You’re maybe asking younger players to do too much at the minute, wherever they’re at, and depending on their club situation, the focus can be very different for all players in competitive games.
“The preparation is also better because we have no club interference.”
Sammy Clingan, drafted in on Tuesday, raised questions about Grant McCann’s continued omission.
Many challenged O’Neill’s decision to summons Clingan, who is currently without a club.
“There’s no real mystery. I spoke to Grant before the Finland game with the option of bringing him into the squad and thought it was not in anyone’s best interests for him to miss club fixtures at this time.
“The option is there for him to be part of the squad, but he opted to stay at home, both for personal and club reasons, which I respected.
“He will be watched and monitored along with the rest of the players.”