Michael O’Neill has warned his Northern Ireland players he will need them at their sharpest to cope with a tough double-header away to Austria and Bosnia & Herzegovina next month.
MORE: NI boss Michael O’Neill delivers his verdict on Gavin Whyte’s dream deubt
A 3-0 friendly victory over Israel on Tuesday night proved the perfect tonic for Northern Ireland after the frustration of dominating their UEFA Nations League opener against Bosnia on Saturday only to lose 2-1.
That result has put added importance on October’s trip to Vienna and Sarajevo, with O’Neill’s side needing to put points on the board or face the prospect of relegation in the new format.
But with strength-in-depth still an issue for Northern Ireland, O’Neill knows how difficult those games will be.
“The biggest challenge we have which will always be there is playing double-headers,” O’Neill said.
“In October when we play the two games away that’s a tough turnaround, two tough games. Will we have the strength? We’re probably still not in a position where we can drop five (new players) in the team and play just as well.
“That will be a challenge, but equally we’re going to have to become a team that can deal with the double-header well because the Euro qualifying is five double-headers potentially, or at least four, so that is something we’re going to have to deal with.”
“Gavin Whyte’s debut goal - with his first touch in international football - was the highlight of Tuesday’s win, and a pleasing sign of new players coming through.
Leeds goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Norwich left-back Jamal Lewis made their first competitive starts in the game against Bosnia in a week where all three could conceivably have instead been playing for the Under-21s, who recorded a notable away victory over Spain on Tuesday evening.
“We had three players over the two games that could have played for the Under-21s in Bailey, Jamal and Gavin,” O’Neill said.
“So the opportunity is there for young players. I think we’ve done a lot of work to try and push our young players, with Paul Smyth another we’ll see shortly become a fixture in the squad as well. So I think young players out there should recognise the opportunity is there.”