Michael O’Neill urges Northern Ireland to embrace challenge against Denmark

Michael O’Neill urges Northern Ireland to embrace challenge against Denmark

Michael O’Neill has told his young Northern Ireland players to embrace the challenge of taking on Denmark in Copenhagen on Friday night.

O’Neill said this Euro 2024 qualifier was not only the hardest fixture on paper but the “hardest fixture full stop” as Northern Ireland travel to take on the top seeds in Group H at the always noisy Parken Stadium.

Jamal Lewis has been added to an already lengthy injury list which has robbed O’Neill of half a dozen of his most experienced players, and with Shane Ferguson also out there is a shortage of left-sided players.

O’Neill will try to get as much experience as he can into his starting 11, but there will be no option but to rely on younger players too, with Conor Bradley and Shea Charles among the contenders to start.

“This is a good game for us,” O’Neill said. “It’s a young squad, we’ve got seven under-21 players with us. We’ll rely heavily on our experienced players as well. It’s a game we can only gain from really.

“Obviously we were disappointed with the home game against Finland (a 1-0 defeat in March), we felt we deserved more than we got, so we’ve got to try and make up points somewhere along the line. This is a hard place to play, but we’ll go with the intention of trying to find something from the game.”

The 38,000-seater Parken Stadium can become an intimidating place for visiting teams, but while it might be unlike anything Northern Ireland’s younger players have experienced before, O’Neill does not want them to shy away.

“I think they should embrace it really more than anything else,” he said. “The message will be go out and enjoy playing in a stadium like this…

“The thing I’ve enjoyed in working with the younger players is I see their attitude to the game, it’s very positive, I don’t think they’ll have a fear.

“There’s a lot of self-belief and abilities in the likes of Shea Charles, Isaac Price, Conor Bradley, Trai Hume, they play in games where they’ve a lot of expectancy where they’re currently playing their football.

“I think we have to have that mindset that we’ve got everything to gain from Friday night and not fear the atmosphere but look forward to it.”

One key challenge for Northern Ireland will be limiting Manchester United midfielder Christian Eriksen’s ability to dictate play from the centre of pitch.

“We understand we are dealing with a top level player here,” O’Neill said. “It’s brilliant seeing him back playing international football.

“The days of man marking players is more difficult now but as a team we have made the midfield players in particular very aware of the Danish midfield and Christian Eriksen is the major player in that midfield. He is a hugely experienced player at international level.

Christian Eriksen
Christian Eriksen will be a key player for Denmark (Nick Potts/PA)

“I think to deal with players at that level it’s more about what we do as a collective as opposed to possibly that designated player to deal with that situation.”

Both sides come into the game nursing disappointments from the last round of fixtures in March.

Denmark suffered a shock defeat to Kazakhstan, blowing a 2-0 lead as their unfancied hosts scored three in the last 20 minutes, while O’Neill’s first game back in charge at Windsor Park ended in that loss to Finland.

O’Neill insisted he was not interested in making any sort of statement by claiming a big scalp on Friday, but his mind is on making up for what he sees as lost points.

“It would give us six points and it would make up for the disappointment of Finland,” he said. “I don’t think it’s about sending out a statement. I think this group could be very tight. Results have demonstrated that.

“If you can take anything off the number one seed in the group it is a massive achievement.”