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Michael O’Neill not thinking about Northern Ireland qualifying for Euro 2024

Michael O’Neill has said trying to qualify for Euro 2024 is no longer his primary concern as Northern Ireland’s injury crisis shows no sign of abating.

Craig Cathcart was a late withdrawal ahead of Friday’s 1-0 defeat to Denmark in Copenhagen, taking the number of senior players missing through injury into double figures.

A youthful line-up that included teenagers Conor Bradley, Shea Charles and Isaac Price handled the intimidating atmosphere of the Parken Stadium admirably and thought they had a stoppage-time equaliser to cancel out Jonas Wind’s goal, only for debutant Callum Marshall’s strike to be ruled offside by VAR.

Defeat leaves Northern Ireland with one win from their opening three qualifiers, albeit still only three points off top spot with Denmark, Finland, Slovenia and Kazakhstan all on six points.

When O’Neill, the man who guided Northern Ireland to Euro 2016, returned to the job in December, there was real hope that they could capitalise on what was seen as a favourable draw in Group H.

But asked if Friday’s defeat put pressure on Northern Ireland to beat Kazakhstan at Windsor Park on Monday, O’Neill said: “We had six under-21s on the pitch. We’re not thinking about qualification. We’re thinking about putting points on the board. We have 10 senior players out injured.

“We’re not in that place that the teams we’re playing against, the likes of Denmark, are. We’re building a team here that’s dealing with a difficult situation with the number of senior players we’ve lost.

“We’re not in there before the game talking about qualification, we’re talking about a level of performance, to give a really good account of ourselves, which we did. Obviously if we can take points which we nearly did we’d be delighted but we’re not talking in that vein at the moment.”

With the likes of Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans and Shane Ferguson all out with long-term injuries, O’Neill was already relying on young players during March’s fixtures and was made to do so again for a trip away to the top seeds in the group.

Cathcart could return in time for Monday’s fixture, but a huge amount of vital experience is missing from O’Neill’s ranks.

“You know the players who are missing and you know the players we’re asking to play at this moment in time,” he said.

“They’re not first-team players at their respective clubs on a regular basis and we’re playing against established international players who play at top clubs in Europe.

“We have to be realistic with the level we can compete at on a consistent basis.

“But the experience the players will have from nights like this, this is a brilliant place to play football, a brilliant stadium, brilliant home support, a fantastic pitch, and they will be better at the start of what is an international journey for a lot of these players.

“A number of these players will have long and distinguished international careers, it’s nights like these they will really benefit from.”

Northern Ireland left Copenhagen still frustrated by the disallowed goal, with VAR having taken five minutes to decide Jonny Evans’ heel was offside before he headed the ball on for Marshall to finish, but there was pride in a battling display.

One mistake proved the difference, with Wind pouncing when Ciaron Brown failed to deal with Joakim Maehle’s cross into the box.

“It’s disappointing to lose to a goal of that nature,” O’Neill added. “But we have to look at so much that was positive in our performance. We lost Craig Cathcart overnight with a back injury and I think what we got from our lads was terrific and as a manager you can’t really ask for much more.”

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