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Saturday 21 October 2017

O'Neill insists Euro expansion helping North

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

The decision to increase the number of participants from 16 to 24 at the 2016 tournament has been divisive, with the continent's heavy-hitters virtually guaranteed to qualify even if they experience the occasional bump in the road.

But with third place now good enough to guarantee at least a play-off, the prospects of less distinguished nations have been greatly improved.

If O'Neill's side can maintain their magnificent current form, they may not need the additional places, with Tuesday's surprise 2-0 success in Greece extending their 100 per cent record to three matches and leaving them top of Group F by two points.

But O'Neill is in no doubt that the revised system has played a part in raising expectations around his squad.

"With third spot offering a play-off, the smaller nations have an opportunity now, which I believe is a good thing," he said. "It also helps the bigger nations, of course, because they should never miss out - a big nation should always qualify now for the Euros, which I think is what UEFA would like to happen.

"But I think it is also good that the smaller nations, the likes of ourselves, have the chance to go to a finals.

"It is very, very tough to get to a World Cup now... 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. I'm a fan of it."

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

But, while fans may be forgiven for brushing up on their French skills, O'Neill is refusing to lose himself in the moment. 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," he 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."

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