BBC analyst John O'Neill expects N Ireland to beat Faroe Islands

Kyle Lafferty
Kyle Lafferty was a key figure in NI's win over Hungary

BBC Sport NI analyst John O'Neill says he "fully expects" Northern Ireland to beat the Faroe Islands and head to Greece with a maximum six points from their opening two Euro 2016 qualifiers.

Goals from Kyle Lafferty and Niall McGinn helped Michael O'Neill's side to a 2-1 win in Hungary last month, but mixed results against the so-called 'lesser' nations in recent years mean complacency should not be a problem for the men in green.

"We have struggled so many times against the likes of Luxembourg and Azerbaijan and we blew any hopes we had of qualifying for the last European Championships by drawing away to the Faroes," said O'Neill.

"Prior to beating Hungary, we had only won four of our previous 39 competitive games but the victory in Budapest will have given the squad great confidence - I can't see us slipping up at Windsor Park and that would set us up nicely for the trip to Greece."

Northern Ireland's classification in Group F earlier this year failed to land any eye-catching glamour ties but a genuine chance of progression to the final stages of the expanded tournament in France in 2016 more than made up for that.

With the top two teams in the eight groups, along with the best third-placed side, all qualifying directly for the finals, there has never been a better chance for some of the lower ranked countries to progress.

Even if they fail to make that first cut, the other third-placed sides in each qualifying group will get a second chance, playing off against each other in two-legged play-offs.

Northern Ireland's remaining World Cup Group F qualifiers
Faroe Islands (home)Saturday 11 October 2014
Greece (away)Tuesday 14 October 2014
Romania (away)Friday 14 November 2014
Finland (home)Sunday 29 March 2015
Romania (home)Saturday 13 June 2015
Faroe Islands (away)Friday 4 September 2015
Hungary (home)Monday 7 September 2015
Greece (home)Thursday 8 October 2015
Finland (away)Sunday 11 October 2015

"I was a bit shocked to see Romania beat Greece last month and it made me wonder if Greece are perhaps on a downward spiral," observed O'Neill.

"They've had two or three good tournaments in recent years but some of their players are getting a little bit older and we've maybe seen the best of them.

"Most observers thought Greece and Romania would secure the top two spots in the group and then it would be a mini-tournament between Northern Ireland, Hungary and Finland for third place, but the result in Hungary puts us in a great position."

The former Leicester City central defender believes the presence and form of Norwich City striker Kyle Lafferty will have a key role to play in the campaign.

"Goalscoring has been a persistent problem of late but if Kyle stays fit and sensible and keeps a cool head on his shoulders, he could take us all the way through to third place and a play-off spot," said O'Neill.

"When he has played, Northern Ireland have come away with good results and he was outstanding again against Hungary.

"Three of our first four matches are away from home, but given that we only won one of our 10 fixtures in the last campaign, at least we have got off to the best possible start. Despite the capacity of Windsor Park being reduced to around 10,500 for now, I expect the crowd to play their part too."

For some players, such as Roy Carroll, Gareth McAuley, Chris Baird and Aaron Hughes, this campaign may represent their last chance to make an appearance at a major finals.

Conor McLaughlin
Conor McLaughlin of Fleetwood Town impressed at right-back in the win over Hungary

But the emergence of new blood and fresh young talent in the form of Luke McCullough, Ryan McLaughlin, Paul Paton and Conor McLaughlin during the summer tour games against Uruguay and Chile provided reason for optimism.

Building on that, the success over the Hungarians saw Northern Ireland come from behind to win a World Cup or European qualifying game for the first time in their history and the morale-boosting display impressed the BBC Radio Ulster pundit.

"I liked the look of the side in that opening match and young Conor McLaughlin was a breath of fresh air at right-back.

"He looked comfortable on the ball going forward and defending and if Michael O'Neill plays him on the right and Chris Brunt at left-back against the Faroes, then that gives us good attacking options.

"We defended admirably throughout that game and McAuley and Hughes were outstanding, so, if he is available, I don't know where Michael will fit Jonny Evans, who was suspended, into his line-up.

"Northern Ireland looked comfortable for the whole game and passed the ball as well as I've seen a Northern Ireland team do for a long time. The players didn't panic when we went behind, but responded with composure.

"We must have put 20 passes together for our first goal - if Brazil or Argentina had done that people would have been raving about it.

"We don't want to get carried away but I like the way the team performed and if we can reproduce that type of form, we can get results."

John O'Neill was speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Sportsound programme.

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