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Michael O’Neill is bracing himself for another challenging international window as Northern Ireland’s bruising Euro 2024 qualifying campaign comes to an end this month.
Any hope of reaching next summer’s tournament was virtually extinguished as long ago as June, and with only two wins – both against San Marino – and six defeats in Group H, Northern Ireland would have been forgiven for wanting to fast forward to the end of a campaign ruined by an ongoing injury crisis.
But two games remain and with a trip to Finland, the pot two team in last October’s draw, to come before top seeds Denmark visit Windsor Park on October 20, they are two of the hardest on paper.
O’Neill on Wednesday welcomed back Ciaron Brown and Jordan Jones into his squad but the 26-strong group was another one largely dictated by who is and who is not available due to injury, and the headwinds remain firmly against Northern Ireland.
Finland blew their chance to qualify with back-to-back defeats to Slovenia and Kazakhstan last month, but Denmark are level on points with Slovenia at the top of the standings, looking to finish the job off.
“They will be difficult games but all the games have been difficult,” O’Neill told the PA news agency.
“When I look at the team and I take the results out of it and look at where we are, how we are in possession and a number of other areas, there’s not a lot of difference between all the teams in the group bar Denmark who have been the most dominant.
“We have to look at the positives. We’re not that far behind these teams but we’ve come out on the wrong side of narrow scorelines. We have to learn from that.
“We have been more dominant in possession than some of my previous teams but we’ve not carried the same threat, and obviously we’ve gone behind in games so we’ve not had the opportunity to defend a lead and I think that’s when you’ve seen the best of Northern Ireland, in that situation.”
Although Brown and Jones return, Conor Bradley, Ali McCann and Shayne Lavery all remain unavailable, as do the senior players – Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans and Shane Ferguson – who have missed the entire campaign.
“It’s a blow not to have young Conor back and to have Ali McCann and Shayne Lavery still out as well,” O’Neill said.
“We’re trying to pick a consistent squad and with the injuries there are still up to seven or eight players who could be involved that aren’t.
“It’s not like there’s a number of players on the periphery we could select ahead of those we have selected. The lads we’ve picked are the ones playing more regular football at their clubs and who merit their place at this moment in time.
“We’re trying to grow a team, to develop a team and we have to continue to do that. With the older players we don’t know what involvement they will have going forward, that’s a decision they have to make.
“The backbone of the squad is very, very young and we have to get as much international experience into them as possible and hopefully that experience is as positive as possible as well.”
Daniel Ballard is fit again after a calf injury, while Shea Charles retains his place in the group although the Southampton player will miss the trip to Helsinki through suspension, having been sent off in last month’s 1-0 home defeat to Slovenia.
Eighteen-year-old striker Callum Marshall is in the squad again after some excellent form for West Ham Under-21s, and will hope for another chance after being denied a debut goal away to Denmark in June when his late equaliser was disallowed.
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