San Marino may have conceded 17 goals in their past two away games, but Northern Ireland’s Gareth McAuley would settle for a narrow victory in their World Cup qualifier.
One of the lowest-ranked sides in world football visit Belfast to face a Northern Irish side playing at Windsor Park for the first time since its renovation was complete.
A sell-out crowd of over 18,000, which will include FIFA president Gianni Infantino and high-profile local figures such as boxing world champion Carl Frampton, will expect O’Neill’s side to encounter few difficulties against the microstate given their record in previous qualifiers.
San Marino have never won a competitive game since joining FIFA in 1988 and have shipped a staggering 154 goals in the 34 qualifiers since they last avoided defeat in a World Cup qualifier 15 years ago.
However, McAuley insists Northern Ireland are less interested in running up a cricket score and more concerned with emerging with the three points they need prior to Tuesday’s game against world champions Germany.
“It is a must-win game,” said the West Brom centre-back. I’d expect all the other teams in the group to beat San Marino home and away so we are going to have to do that if we’re going to give ourselves any chance.
“The Faroes was the same scenario in the last campaign; if you don’t do that, then forget about. So that means there is a pressure on us. We’ve got to stay patient on how we approach it.
“We need the crowd to stay with us and be patient, too. If it is a goal in the last minute and we win 1-0 then job done. Obviously we’d like to win by more but the days of doing that in international football are probably gone.
“I won’t be disappointed if we don’t put on a great performance against San Marino but come out with a 1-0 win, not at all.
“I’ve been to Luxembourg and lost. I’ve been to the Faroes and drew down the years.
“Yes, everyone wants to entertain but the most important thing is to get three points from that game. It doesn’t matter how we do it as long as we do.”
Previous Northern Ireland teams that McAuley has been a part of have struggled against the lesser lights of international football.
In the previous World Cup qualification campaign, both Luxembourg and Azerbaijan defeated Northern Ireland in their own countries, but those types of banana skins were avoided in the run-up to Euro 2016 when Michael O’Neill’s side claimed 10 points from fixtures with the Faroe Islands and Finland.
“I’d like to think we have learned our lesson from previous campaigns over the years and how we do things,” McAuley added.
“If we are our own worst enemy in the game, we won’t get anything from it.
“But if we make the right choices and do the right things then we have enough but that is down to us players on the pitch.
“After Luxembourg we hit a low against the team we’d expect to beat. But we are in a good place now and we are making the right decisions on the pitch now.”