Michael O'Neill: NI boss prepares to face old friend Mixu Paatelainen

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill has led his team to three wins from four matches in their campaign so far

Michael O'Neill is preparing to do battle with a familiar face on Sunday, as an old friend attempts to derail Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 dream.

Finland are the opponents at Windsor Park, led by Mixu Paatelainen, the man who gave O'Neill his coaching break as his number two at Cowdenbeath.

The pair led their countries in a 3-3 friendly draw in 2012, during the early days of O'Neill's tenure.

"We both know each other inside out and how our teams will play," said O'Neill.

Northern Ireland have taken nine points from a possible 12 in Group F and lie second, while their opponents face a fight to stay in contention with just four points from their four fixtures.

O'Neill admits he and Paatelainen have declined to swap advice about other teams on the road to France, but accepts the two men know each other's style.

"We're similar to players, I think. When you've played at a club with someone and then you've worked briefly with them as a coach, there's obviously a relationship there.

"But we didn't spend hours on the phone or anything up to that, so the relationship hasn't changed at all.

"Obviously we are less inclined to discuss the opposition because he probably thinks he doesn't want to tell me things I perhaps don't know and vice versa.

"Regardless of what happens it won't affect how close we are."

Northern Ireland's remaining Euro 2016 qualifiers
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

O'Neill even sees a parallel between the two national sides, with both he and Paatelainen attempting to eke the best out of a small number of top-tier players, while building a strong group in support.

"I think Mixu has done a great job there and his job is quite similar to mine," he said.

"You have a limited pool of players to choose from and he has got them playing in a nice style.

"There's no doubt Finland are a good team but there is a dependence there on five or six players and the team's make-up is quite similar to mine."

Northern Ireland's current position, and the well of optimism around the squad, is in stark contrast to an underwhelming first campaign under O'Neill.

Brief glimmers of light - a battling point in Portugal, a 1-0 win over Russia - were outweighed by dismal defeats against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.

And the manager is both pleased and grateful that senior men such as captain Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley did not allow themselves to become disillusioned.

"That's the only way you can build an international team - you can't build one, unless you've got massive resources, if you can't be patient," he said.

"You need the patience of Steven, Gareth, Jonny and Brunty, who continue to come through the disappointment. They move on, but this is the reward for those players.

"Over the past 18 months I've seen a lot of change and a real progression."