If ever there was a game Northern Ireland have to win, it’s next Saturday at home to San Marino.
With 171 world ranking places between the sides, Michael O’Neill knows his side have to ensure they don’t slip up.
“In this group it will be very key to maximise the points you get against the pot five and pot six teams,” he said. “If we learnt anything in the previous campaign for Brazil 2014, that’s something that we have to improve on.”
Northern Ireland struggled through that qualifying group, failing to beat Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.
It was all a far cry from their road to Euro 2016, when they won their group. As part of that, Northern Ireland were unbeaten at home, winning three and drawing two in Belfast.
O’Neill knows that’s a record they’ll have to try and repeat if they’re to make it to the World Cup finals in Russia in 2018.
“You cannot have a good campaign and drop points at home,” he said. “Given that we play San Marino, Azerbaijan and Norway here (first), if we can get as many points on the board then it will set us up nicely for when the Czech Republic and Germany come here at the tail end of the campaign.”
O’Neill’s men take on San Marino next Saturday (October 8), travel to Germany the next day and then face the world champions in Hannover on Tuesday 11.
“Anything we take in Germany is a bonus,” said the boss.
“Away to Germany in international football is the equivalent of going away to Barcelona in club football. It’s as difficult as that.
“It’s going to be a hugely difficult game for us but we’ve seen countries go there in the past and manage to get away with a point.
“The focus is to make sure we win the first game and the second game tends to take care of itself.”
Northern Ireland have announced that they will host Croatia in a friendly at the National Stadium on Tuesday November 15.
“It will be a great test for the players,” said O’Neill. “The nice thing about having it after the qualification game is that you can maybe reward some of the players who haven’t played in the qualification campaign to date.”