NI boss Michael O’Neill hails new Nations League format

The Northern Ireland team go through their paces at training
The Northern Ireland team go through their paces at training

Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill is sure the new UEFA Nations League competition will be “a good thing” for the smaller nations.

O’Neill’s men face Bosnia & Herzegovina at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park on Saturday in their first Nations League match

The new tournament has been designed to replace international friendlies with more competitive matches and will include promotion and relegation for the sides involved.

The Nations League will also provide another route to qualify for the European Championship, with four places available via play-off games.

And O’Neill is a big fan of this new format and believes so called ‘smaller nations’ will benefit from playing these competitive fixtures.

“I think it’s good. I think it’s probably better for smaller nations like ourselves in the sense of it’s very difficult to organise friendlies with the calibre of this.

“It’s expensive to try and do it as well. The fact we are in competition now, which has the reward of a promotion-relegation situation. “But it also has the route to Euro 2020 as well which is a good thing. We are happy with the format, we look forward to the games.

“The games will prepare us for what lies ahead when the draw is made for Euro 2020,” he told Sky Sports.

And O’Neill is sure Bosnia & Herzegovina -before they face Israel on Tuesday night - will be a real test for his side as they have talented players throughout their ranks.

“We’ll be trying to win both games,” said O’Neill.

“The first one we want to win because obviously it’s a new tournament and it’s important we get off to a good start.

“I think the Bosnia game is going to be tough, they’re a good team.

“I looked at their World Cup qualifying group and probably one result cost them the chance of a play-off, away to Cyprus where they lost. That did the damage.

“In Dzeko they’ve got one of the top strikers in Europe and Pjanic is arguably one of the top midfield players, certainly in Serie A.

“It’s going to be a tough game for us and it’s a tough group with us up against Bosnia and Austria so we’re under no illusions.

“The fact that we’re competing at the second level of this tournament shows what we’ve managed to achieve in recent times, especially when you look at some of the countries who are currently in the third league.

“For me the Nations League is important, to build that momentum again, to get the players focused again.

“Regarding the Israel game, it’s nice to have the friendly after the competitive game because it will then give me the opportunity to look at one or two things, one or two players, and give them game time as well.”

And O’Neill admitted that the retirement of Chris Brunt has made him think about the left back position.

“That position has always been a problem for us and Chris solved that problem. Now we have Jamal Lewis who has done well for Norwich and he could solve that problem for us.”