Kyle Lafferty key to Northern Ireland World Cup hopes - O'Neill

Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty
Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty

It's the eve of another qualifying campaign and for Northern Ireland fans there is the usual mix of excitement and trepidation.

Making the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil would be near to miraculous, but there is no harm in dreaming before a ball is kicked in anger.

Euro 2012 semi-finalists Portugal are favourites to take the automatic qualification spot in Group F, with Russia their main threat.

For the boys in green to contend for a top-two place, then Sion striker Kyle Lafferty must deliver the goals and revitalise an impotent attack.

That is the view of former Northern Ireland defender John O'Neill, who will be match summariser in Radio Ulster's live coverage of the opener against Russia in Moscow on Friday.

"We have a solid defence with Jonny Evans, Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley established as Premier League players," said O'Neill.

"Going forward and getting goals is the concern - Kyle Lafferty is the spearhead of our attack and I believe he has the ability to deliver.

"He reminds me so much of Billy Hamilton, and if he plays in all our qualifiers then we may have a sniff of getting second and a play-off spot.

"Dean Shiels has emerged in recent games and we can only hope that he can become an effective strike partner for Lafferty.

"Steven Davis in midfield is another key player and like Lafferty we need him to be an ever-present, directing play."

Northern Ireland should pick up three points against minnows Luxembourg in Belfast next Tuesday while Israel and Azerbaijan complete the group.

The opening game often sets the tone for a campaign so the Moscow clash takes on added importance.

"What we must avoid is a hammering - we need a good performance, even in defeat, to take some momentum into the Luxembourg game," added O'Neill.

"Russia disappointed in the Euro finals and are a team in transition, although the players will be desperate to impress new manager Fabio Capello.

"Taking a point in Moscow would be a great bonus but three points from our opening two games is a more likely outcome.

Dean Shiels of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland's Dean Shiels has emerged in recent games

"We are a match for anyone at Windsor Park while we struggle on our travels, and this is where qualification will be won or lost."

Michael O'Neill endured a horror start after taking over from Nigel Worthington as Northern Ireland boss in February.

A 3-0 home defeat by Norway was followed by a 6-0 rout by the Netherlands, although there were signs of improvement in last month's 3-3 draw against Finland.

The Finland game hinted at a more adventurous approach from O'Neill, in contrast to Worthington's conservatism.

The qualifiers also provide an opportunity for fringe players to break into a far from settled line-up.

"Michael, in keeping with the way he played as a midfielder, likes to get the ball down and attack when possible," said O'Neill.

"There has to be a balance between attack and defence, and the task for Michael is to get that right, particularly in away games.

"There are places up for grabs in the side but the last player to come in and cement his spot was Jonny Evans.

"The likes of Pat McCourt and younger players such as Oliver Norwood have been inconsistent so far and now there is a chance to prove they can become regulars.

"Israel and Azerbaijan are no pushovers, and to finish third in the group would be an achievement, although you cannot rule out a wee trip to Brazil in two years time."