Northern Ireland’s players must approach their World Cup qualifier against minnows San Marino as if they are facing world champions Germany, boss Michael O’Neill has said.
The micro-state, ranked 204th in the world, have never won a competitive game since joining FIFA 29 years ago and were beaten 4-0 by the Northern Irish in Belfast last October.
In the past, fixtures against smaller nations such as Luxembourg and Azerbaijan were O’Neill’s team’s Achilles heel, but having reached Euro 2016 and put themselves in contention to make next summer’s World Cup too, their boss is confident they can avoid a banana skin on Friday night.
“We’ve looked at how teams have not played as smartly as they could have and maybe underestimated San Marino,” O’Neill said.
“That’s something we’ve hammered home to the players.
“The one thing you always want to avoid is complacency in this type of game and the way to do that is to point out the mistakes you’ve made, your potential weaknesses and to make sure on the night we play as if we’re playing Germany or the Czech Republic.
“Having seen the players this week, that’s what we anticipate for the type of performance we’ll get.
“We don’t envisage it will be easy for us. Whether you win 1-0 or 6-0, it’s irrelevant; the key is making sure we win the game.”
This time two years ago O’Neill’s side were in pole position to secure qualification to Euro 2016, their first major tournament in three decades, and in 2017 they are also sitting pretty in their World Cup qualification group.
Should they beat San Marino, group leaders Germany defeat the Czech Republic and Azerbaijan fail to record a victory in Norway on Friday, Northern Ireland would head home to face the Czechs on Monday knowing a draw would seal second spot, and a potential play-off berth.
That would be another significant achievement for a squad that have not rested on their laurels after reaching the last 16 at France the previous summer.
“There’s an underlying fear that you can’t get to the level again and that was something that I was certainly very conscious of,” O’Neill admitted.
“We’ve had many discussions of where we are as a team in terms of how we would negotiate this group. It wasn’t easy, particularly when Germany and the Czechs were group winners for the Euros, Norway were beaten in the play-offs and we knew Azerbaijan would present difficulties, as San Marino are capable of as well.
“The key was could we maintain the momentum? And we did that very well in the opening four games. I felt once we negotiated the opening four games we were going to be in a good place, which we were. Then you get big results.
“There’s no doubt that Stuart (Dallas’) goal in Azerbaijan was a huge result for us because Norway and the Czech Republic drew, it gave us the four-point cushion that we have now. The way the fixtures have fallen, we’re in a position to really benefit from that result.
“There’s always been an underlying fear that I think motivates you and drives you on to make sure you try and keep the team at the level they’re at, and I think that fear has been there for the players as much as it’s been there for me.
“They deserve enormous credit, for what has been a difficult group , to be in the position they’re in after six games with a lot to play for in the remaining four games.”