NI manager Michael O'Neill says World Cup group is tough

Michael O'Neill accepts he is fighting an uphill battle in his attempt to give Northern Ireland fans the World Cup appearance they crave.

Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifying opponents include Russia and Portugal and O'Neill admits his team have "a very difficult group".

"Qualification now is becoming more and more difficult all the time for the smaller countries," added O'Neill.

Northern Ireland's first qualifier is in Moscow on 7 September.

"They were an older side at the Euros and I think there'll be some changes in terms of personnel there," said O'Neill of the Russians, who are now managed by former England boss Fabio Capello.

NI's World Cup qualifiers

  • v Russia (a) 7 September
  • v Luxembourg (h) 11 Sept
  • v Portugal (a) 16 October
  • v Azerbaijan (h) 14 Nov
  • v Russia (h) 22 March 2013
  • v Israel (h) 26 March 2013
  • v Portugal (h) 6 Sept 2013
  • v Luxembourg (a) 10 Sept 2013
  • v Azerbaijan (a) 11 Oct 2013
  • v Israel (a) 15 Oct 2013

"But, again, they are a very difficult opponent for us and we open up away in Moscow.

"We could have had an easier fixture if I'm honest but we have to play them at some point so it may work to our benefit in the opening game."

O'Neill acknowledges that he was "extremely impressed" with the Portugese in Euro 2012 as they went all the way to the semi-finals before losing out on penalties to eventual winners Spain.

With Israel, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg also in the group, Northern Ireland may do well to finish third in the group.

"Israel's a little bit of an unknown quantity. It's a difficult place to go and play for us," acknowledged O'Neill.

"Azerbaijan are an emerging nation and there's been a lot of investment there. All the (away) games will be difficult games for us.

"We have to look to our home form. We need to make Windsor Park a difficult place again for people to come to and that's where we'll pick up points."

Northern Ireland have not qualified for a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup and only the group winners will be guaranteed a place in Brazil with the second placed team earning a play-off.