World Cup 2018: NI manager O'Neill expects 'close' play-off with Switzerland

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill with captain Steven Davis
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill with captain Steven Davis

Northern Ireland need their World Cup play-off tie against Switzerland to be "close", says manager Michael O'Neill.

Windsor Park hosts the first leg on Thursday, with the return in Basel on Sunday - a place at the Russia 2018 finals the prize for the winner.

"We need it to be close because I don't think we are going to come through a high-scoring tie," said O'Neill.

"It's important not to concede at home. We are not a team suited to going out and chasing the game."

He added: "We want to have something to take to Basel with us. The games will be tight and close and we can hopefully go there and play on the counter-attack with something to defend."

Northern Ireland are aiming to reach a World Cup finals for the first time since 1986 and secure a place at consecutive major tournaments for the first time in their history, having competed at Euro 2016 in France.

"I'm excited at the prospect of the challenge and potentially getting to a World Cup. There are nerves and apprehension too, but your emotions are more channelled once you have the players around you.

"I'll be more relaxed closer to the game when I know the preparation has gone according to plan and we are ready to play.

"A two-legged tie is a different experience for us and you have to manage the game but the first thing to focus on is our level of performance and hopefully that will ultimately give us a good result to take to Switzerland."

Jamie Ward is back in the NI squad after scoring on his last appearance against Norway in Belfast in March
Jamie Ward is back in the NI squad after scoring on his last appearance against Norway in Belfast in March

Despite having a relatively short time to work with his players, O'Neill believes it is to his squad's advantage to have Thursday's leg taking place in Belfast.

"The Swiss have to get together and travel and prepare within a short time frame leading up to the game so I think that's a plus point for us.

"The work we do on the training pitch is always consistent so we are not going to start doing stuff that we haven't done in the past few years.

"The players know what is expected of them and it's just a case of fine tuning things.

"Different opposition obviously presents different problems and it's important we highlight the threats the Swiss pose and how we will deal with that."

Hearts defender Aaron Hughes is an injury doubt for the first leg in particular but the NI boss is pleased to have Sunderland utility player Paddy McNair and Nottingham Forest forward Jamie Ward available again after lengthy absences.

"Paddy has come off the bench to play in Sunderland's last couple of games but Jamie had just four minutes off the bench for Forest when I hoped he would have got a little bit longer than that.

"I would obviously have liked them to have more minutes under their belt but it is a big boost just to have them back in the squad. Whatever they are able to give us for whatever length of time is a boost for us."

Analysis

Former Northern Ireland defender and BBC Sport NI analyst John O'Neill:

"I think the Northern Ireland players will rise to the challenge and the experience of the Euros will stand them in good stead.

"The important thing is for all our key players to come through unscathed this weekend as we don't have a big squad and if we got injuries to one or two it leaves us very short.

"The important thing is that we get the best side that we can out on the pitch and if we do that we have every chance of winning the tie.

"If we can go to Basel with a one-goal lead we are going to be very, very difficult to beat.

"Switzerland are a very experienced side and they are going to need all that experience. Away goals will be critical and if they score at Windsor Park it will be difficult for us. If we can keep a clean sheet I think we have the chance to go to Basel and score."