Michael O’Neill will have his eyes set firmly on next year’s Euro 2020 qualifiers when Northern Ireland wrap up their Nations League campaign against Austria on Sunday.
While Northern Ireland were playing out a 0-0 friendly draw with the Republic of Ireland on Thursday night, their relegation from League B of the Nations League was confirmed as Austria and Bosnia and Herzegovina produced a goalless stalemate of their own in Vienna.
But O’Neill once again played down the relevance of relegation as he eyed next year’s qualifiers, with Northern Ireland due to learn their opponents when the draw is made in Dublin on December 2.
“What does relegation from the Nations League mean?” he asked.
“I don’t think anyone really knows apart from the fact that when this competition comes around again in two years’ time we’re playing in League C.
“But in two years’ time we’ll be trying to qualify for a World Cup rather than the Euros. It hurts us in terms of the play-offs but we’re building a team for qualifying, trying to finish in the top two of a group.
“In the last two campaigns we’ve won a group and finished second.
“I think the team is getting stronger, there’s a youthfulness about it and maybe more pace than there has been.”
Thursday’s result in Vienna makes Sunday’s game against Austria at Windsor Park a dead rubber, but O’Neill is keen for his side to use it as a further chance to develop their game for the challenges to come.
The draw in Dublin continued a number of familiar themes for Northern Ireland in recent games – they dominated possession and had a string of chances but never found a way past man of the match Darren Randolph in the Republic goal.
“There’s a lot of positives taken from our performance,” O’Neill said.
“We’re disappointed we didn’t win the game but we look forward to the next game and hopefully this preparation makes sure we’re ready for March.”
O’Neill’s starting line-up featured only two changes from their last Nations League outing, a 2-0 defeat to Bosnia in Sarajevo in October, but he suggested he is likely to freshen things up once again at the weekend.
“We’ll see where we go but what I do have is 28 players – we let Tom Flanagan go back to Sunderland to play on Saturday – but we have 28 players, no withdrawals, there’s a bunch of lads desperate to play,” he said.
“It’s a healthy situation to be in. We’ll probably make a few changes for Sunday. I know everyone will be itching to play.”