MICHAEL O’Neill has promised tonight’s Northern Ireland squad will be the strongest he has ever fielded.
With some of the most experienced names back in the team for the first 2014 World Cup qualifier against Russia, O’Neill has demonstrated fresh confidence – and says its competitive games which really fire him up.
“I am looking forward to it,” he said.
“It’s been a good few days since coming to Moscow.
“This is the strongest squad we have had available, we have been hindered by injury but the ones we have are good. Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird, Chris Brunt, Gareth McAuley and so forth.
“We have defence who have a lot of experience at international and Premier League levels and can cope very well with this kind of fixture.
“They have done it and have led by example over the years for Northern Ireland so there is no reason at all, given the level of players we have here, why they cannot get the results similar to what we have in the past.”
The 43-year-old conceded, however, that key names are still missing from his ideal panel.
Shane Ferguson, Paddy McCourt and Martin Paterson did not travel with the team through injury, with Ferguson’s absenteeism a particular concern for O’Neill.
“It’s always disappointing to lose men from your initial squad,” he said.
“Shane was a blow because he has played so well for us in last three games but I think we have ample cover in the other areas.
“You always have a core team in your mind, you’re never picking from the optimum situation whereas everyone is right there with their fitness and when all club situations are positive.
“So while I may have a basic team in my mind it is realistic to think I may never be able to pick that and we don’t get to assess them until they are with us.
“I’m happy with the players we have available to us.
“The experienced players we have back give the squad a more solid look about it than we have had in previous games.”