Michael O'Neill says Northern Ireland must treat Netherlands matches as 'play-off'
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By Sky Sports News
Last Updated: 10/10/19 6:32pm
Michael O'Neill says Northern Ireland must treat their two upcoming games against the Netherlands as a "play-off" to reach Euro 2020.
The two nations meet in Rotterdam on Thursday, live on Sky Sports, before the Dutch travel to Belfast for the reverse fixture on November 16.
Northern Ireland are three points ahead of the Netherlands in Group C, having played one game more in qualifying.
Germany top the group with a superior head-to-head record over Northern Ireland, and O'Neill believes his side are now fighting for second place behind the three-time European champions.
When asked where a win over the Netherlands would rank in Northern Irish football history, O'Neill said: "We're under no illusions how difficult the game will be [but] I don't kind of categorise achievements in that way.
"We are in a situation where, having spoken to the players, we are essentially in a play-off situation with Holland. We need to get four points out of that.
"They have a stronger position in that play-off because they got three points against Germany. That's the way we are going to have to approach this game and the game in Belfast.
"That's the job that's in front of us. It's not an easy task by any means but we know to give ourselves a chance in terms of automatic qualification, we have to try to take something from the game on Thursday night."
The Netherlands failed to qualify for Euro 2016, as well as the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and O'Neill believes the current Dutch squad are under huge pressure to avoid another embarrassment.
"The most important thing is that we'll stay in the game and make it as difficult as we can for the Netherlands," he said.
"By doing that you'll hopefully create a little bit of doubt because it would be a big thing for Holland if they went three tournaments without qualification.
"There is a lot of expectation on this group of players. They are relatively young, I think Daley Blind is the most experienced player in the squad.
"We have to create a situation where the game is difficult, not only physically for Holland, but mentally as well."
Sky Sports' Paul Gilmour in Rotterdam...
In Memphis Depay the Netherlands have a player at the peak of his powers. He has contributed towards 10 of their 14 goals in qualifying (four goals and six assists) but one of Northern Ireland's biggest strengths has been their defensive discipline with the experienced Premier League duo of Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart at the heart of it. They will need to be at their very best along with the full backs to keep a formidable Dutch attack quiet.
In midfield Georginio Wijnaldum plays in a more advanced role for his country with the Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis now operating in a slightly deeper position since Ollie Norwood retired. Frenkie de Jong played for Barcelona on Sunday and flew to his homeland following two hours sleep but Koeman opted to give him more recovery time over intense physical sessions. Northern Ireland's runners in midfield such as George Saville or Corry Evans will need to be switched on. Evans appeared to be tasked with watching Toni Kroos carefully in Belfast and could do a similar role in Rotterdam on De Jong.
Whichever striker is tasked with replacing the injured Conor Washington they will have to occupy Virgil van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt, while Northern Ireland must always watch that pairing from set pieces. The Northern Ireland threat looks more likely to come from Paddy McNair and Stuart Dallas, who both like to get into advanced positions on the counterattack.
What is at stake:
A win for the Netherlands, who are three points behind Northern Ireland, would give the Dutch the upper hand in beating their opponents to the final qualifying spot, given they have another competitive game in Belarus on Sunday. Michael O'Neill's side could really have done with the Germans completing the double over the Dutch but instead it is Ronald Koeman's team who look to have found form at the right time.
A draw or better for Northern Ireland would set up a tasty looking tie in Belfast next month. Four points against the Dutch would secure a stunning automatic qualification for the underdogs.
Mood in the camp:
Both teams have appeared relaxed. The Dutch entertained a few hundred fans at an open day on Monday, while on Wednesday the players and Koeman openly cycled around their training base in Zeist.
Northern Ireland have taken belief from their performance against Germany and have lifted themselves after the disappointment of losing despite creating clear cut chances. Jonny Evans was nutmegged by Shane Ferguson in training at De Kuip Stadium, the same venue that George Best knocked the ball through the legs of Johan Cruyff 43 years ago. The players looked in great spirits as they teased their team-mate.