Euro 2016: Northern Ireland's Michael O'Neill backs Uefa change

Kyle Lafferty is embraced after scoring Northern Ireland's second goal against Greece
Kyle Lafferty scored Northern Ireland's second goal against Greece

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill admits that the expansion of the European Championship has played a part in rejuvenating his in-form side.

Tuesday's 2-0 win over Greece in Athens was Northern Ireland's third consecutive win in Group F.

The 2016 finals in France will have 24 teams as opposed to 16 and O'Neill says the change has boosted his squad's mindset for the current qualifiers.

"The smaller nations have an opportunity now," said O'Neill.

"Third spot offers a play-off, which I believe is a good thing.

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O'Neill praises N Ireland quality

"It also helps the bigger nations, of course. A big nation should always qualify now for the Euros, which I think is what Uefa would like to happen.

"It is very, very tough to get to a World Cup. Only 13 countries out of more than 50 from Europe can qualify, so it is much more realistic for us to get an opportunity through the European system."

Northern Ireland's dominant start to this qualifying campaign has led to renewed belief that the country can be at a major championship for the first time since the 1986 World Cup.

But while Northern Ireland currently lead Group F by two points from Romania, O'Neill is refusing to lose himself in the moment.

Northern Ireland's remaining Group F qualifiers
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

The pursuit of a place at the 2014 World Cup yielded just one victory, seven points and a fifth-placed finish for Northern Ireland - a return that means a spot in the top three remains the publicly-stated goal.

"No, I'm not revising that aim at the minute. Our focus is still on third place," O'Neill said.

"What we have at the moment is fantastic but, throughout a campaign, we have such a small number of players, it can be fragile.

"We can't look too far ahead. Whilst we have home games to look forward to, Greece, Romania, Hungary are all capable of coming to Belfast and beating us, so they will be tough, tough games."

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