Northern Ireland’s players will begin to set their sights on World Cup qualification should they defeat Norway on Sunday, according to manager Michael O’Neill.
Victory over the Scandinavians in Belfast would move Northern Ireland to 10 points at the halfway stage and O’Neill sees that figure as a magic marker for his squad’s attitude to reaching Russia in 2018.
“Once you get to double figures, then suddenly your mindset changes a little bit and you start to think about qualification as possibly a more realistic proposition at that time,” he said.
“If you look at us in the previous (Euro 2016 qualification) campaign we won four of the first five and everyone starts to look forward to it. As long as you keep that momentum in the campaign, it’s not that difficult for me to retain the focus for the players because we don’t have a player in our squad that has been to a World Cup.
“I’m sure the experience they had in the summer, they would love to experience that again at the biggest tournament of all. I suppose that’s all we need in terms of a motivating factor.”
The challenge posed by Norway appears more difficult than it did a few weeks ago, before the experienced Lars Lagerback took charge, Lagerback has previously guided Sweden to five successive major tournaments and led Iceland to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.
O’Neill concedes they now represent something of an unknown quantity given the change of manager, and with four players missing from their last starting XI, though he does not believe it will be a battle of wits between the two bosses.
“I would expect to see a lot of British-based players in Lars Lagerback’s starting XI, just in terms of their readiness to play,” O’Neill said.
“We think we have a fair idea of how they’ll play.
“I don’t think the game will be decided because of anything tactical. I think it will be a very British game and decided by who on the day maybe wants it more.
“We have to really make sure that in terms of what we put into the game, it’s everything that we have. The tactical side of it will not necessarily be the determining factor in the game.”
O’Neill’s options for the contest have been reduced by injuries. Both Corry Evans (groin) and Aaron Hughes (calf) have been ruled out and Josh Magennis, who was absent from training too, is rated “extremely doubtful” because of a hamstring problem.
Then there is the ongoing issue surrounding Kyle Lafferty’s fitness. Northern Ireland’s talisman has three goals already in this qualification campaign, which is more than the number of starts he has accrued for Norwich.
In spite of that, his international boss has no doubt Lafferty can once again answer his country’s call.
“His game time has been very, very limited,” O’Neill said.
“His overall fitness is very good, in terms of match fitness that’s a different thing. It will be a factor in terms of the decision that I make but the thing about Kyle is however long we play him for, we know we will get something from him, he is still very, very important to us.
“We saw that in the game against San Marino, where he comes off the bench and scores twice, and we also saw it in the game against Azerbaijan where he scores a very important goal to get us in front.
“Those are things I just have to decide but whatever we get out of him will be of benefit to us.”