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Spanish double-header no holiday for Northern Ireland

When the panel for Northern Ireland's friendly double-header with Spain and Andorra was revealed with a social media graphic that included a couple of rubber rings, one could be forgiven for inferring this was a trip more pleasure than business.

"It could have been pints. I’m happy enough with the rubber rings," joked Michael O'Neill as he later discussed his selections.

A light-hearted moment, but the manager was unequivocal when it came to the importance of this double-header for his side.

Despite their end of season scheduling, and the perception that this is an opportunity for players to enjoy some early summer sun, there will be plenty of boxes to tick for a young group that has already set their sights on qualification for the World Cup in 2026.

Continue their upward trajectory

During O'Neill's first stint in charge of Northern Ireland, it took until his 10th game in charge to secure a first victory - a 1-0 win over Russia at Windsor Park.

Even after that seeming breakthrough, there was still the embarrassment of defeat to Luxembourg to come in the same qualifying campaign.

Less than three years on from that rocky start, however, the side would play at their first major finals in three decades at Euro 2016.

O'Neill's second spell endured a similarly ignominious start, with lowly San Marino the only opposition beaten across the first nine games following his return.

An impressive home win over Denmark concluded an otherwise disappointing qualifying campaign for Euro 2024, however.

Followed by a draw with Romania and win over Scotland in two March friendlies, O'Neill's side are now unbeaten in three games, all against Euros-bound opposition.

Continuing that run against a Spain side ranked eighth in the world may be a considerable ask but the lengthy window spent in the country before and between games gives O'Neill a rare unbroken spell with players, many of whom did not work with him first time around.

"It's normally quite difficult when you have to travel in between games, you don't get to work a lot on the pitch," he said.

"However on this trip we're essentially in Murcia for the majority of the time, so we'll get a lot more time to work with the players and that's why it's important they're there.

"This is our preparation for the Nations League and the Nations League is very much preparation for the World Cup when the draw and games come around."

Reintegrate the squad's senior figures

Corry Evans, Jonny Evans and Josh Magennis
Corry Evans, Jonny Evans and Josh Magennis were all given the option of not travelling but chose to do so [Getty Images]

When O'Neill left Northern Ireland for Stoke in 2019, his squad was a broadly similar one to that which went to the Euros three years earlier.

In January, however, O'Neill's captain and the country's most capped player Steven Davis was forced to retire through injury.

That news was followed by both Stuart Dallas and Craig Cathcart also hanging up their boots.

The loss of such experience was soon evident.

In March, O'Neill fielded a starting team against Romania where no player had yet hit their 30th birthday with the oldest of his selections the debutant striker Jamie Reid.

This time around, there are more senior players on hand to sprinkle throughout what will still be a young side.

The likes of Paddy McNair, who is to get married this week, and Conor Washington are still absent but Jonny and Corry Evans, as well as Josh Magennis, have all travelled despite uncertain club futures.

"We probably don't have enough senior players," reflected O'Neill. "Obviously we lost Davo [Davis] and Stuartie [Dallas] simultaneously, but we also lost Craig Cathcart in the last campaign as well.

"That's a big bulk of your team, but that's the challenge we face at this moment in time. People like Jordan Thompson and Josh have been about the group for a long time and all of those players are important."

Show a different way to play

O'Neill has previously not shied away from taking on seemingly daunting challenges as other sides prepare for major tournaments.

Indeed, he was less than a year in the job when he took a team to Amsterdam to face the Netherlands, then just two years detached from an appearance in the World Cup final, only to be beaten 6-0.

"People go ‘Why would you take that game? What chance have you got away to Spain?’ but for me, we’re talking about the development of a team here and the development of a squad," he said.

"Scheduling games is difficult, so when you get the opportunity to go and play, for me it’s a no-brainer to take it.

"We’re asking players to come and play on 8 June having played a lot of football – but they’re excited because they’re playing Spain away, that’s what motivates them to play."

The game against Andorra provides a different challenge.

In the Scotland win last time out, Northern Ireland enjoyed under a quarter of the possession, with Conor Bradley's winning goal their only shot on target, but playing against European minnows should allow for the likes of Southampton midfielder Shea Charles to dictate play to a far greater degree.

“With Andorra in the second game being a totally different level of opposition, obviously, we get two chances to show [something different]," said O'Neill.

"We’re going to have to be very good without the ball against Spain, as we were in the two games in March.

"Obviously the Andorra game will give us a lot more opportunity to have the ball."