SIGN UP for our newsletter ✉️ :

Get the latest stories delivered straight to you

Northern Ireland: Manager Michael O'Neill's key challenges to halt losing streak against Slovenia and Kazakhstan

Michael O'Neill said himself last week that the challenge facing him as Northern Ireland manager now is significantly different from when he arrived in December.

The positivity was palpable when the former Stoke City boss breezed back through the Windsor Park door a few weeks before Christmas for a second spell in charge of his country.

O'Neill, 51, had secured legendary status during his first tenure, boldly guiding Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals in France, and was returning to lead the side into a Euro 2024 group that offered genuine hopes of qualification.

Fast-forward nine months and those hopes, while not fully extinguished, are fading fast.

An ongoing spate of injuries - he lost strike pair Shayne Lavery and Dale Taylor on Friday night - has robbed O'Neill of key players, significantly altering the landscape of the job and making his challenge a lot more difficult than it looked when he was re-appointed.

An expected 2-0 win away to San Marino in their opener in March was followed by three 1-0 defeats, to Finland and Kazakhstan at home and to Denmark away, leaving Northern Ireland fifth in Group H, six points behind Finland and Kazakhstan in first and second place.

BBC Sport takes a look at some of the key challenges facing O'Neill ahead of their upcoming double-header away to Kazakhstan and Slovenia, .

Maintaining morale amid injury-hit campaign

Stuart Dallas
Stuart Dallas has not played for Northern Ireland since March 2022

They have not yet kicked a ball for O'Neill second time around, but the long-term injuries to captain Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas and Corry Evans have been a big part of the narrative of this campaign, with Jonny Evans' absence from the first two games also a major blow.

When you add in two other Euro 2016 stalwarts Josh Magennis and Conor Washington being missing for the June double-header, it is clear how significant a factor the injuries have been in Northern Ireland garnering just three points from a possible 12 so far.

And just last week the injury blows kept coming. Hugely-promising youngster Conor Bradley suffered a back injury, then came those withdrawals by Lavery and Taylor.

O'Neill seemed keen to downplay expectations in June, saying that qualification was no longer the aim given the injury pile-up. That's perhaps an understandable approach but, even with qualification off the table, it's important to bring a halt to the current mini losing streak.

The three losses have all been by a 1-0 margin, with very little between the sides in each game, but it goes without saying that five defeats in a row would test the morale of any squad, never mind one so young and inexperienced.

Ljubljana and Astana will be hugely testing venues and O'Neill will likely need to call on his renowned eye for detail and planning to muster two positive results as his squad seeks to find its feet again.

Improving the fine margins

When announcing his squad last week, O'Neill pointed to the fact that Northern Ireland were very much in contention in the three games they have lost, but added that they came out on "the wrong side of the small margins" which decide matches.

Scoring goals on a regular basis has been a perennial problem that has dogged Northern Ireland for years and it is one that O'Neill realises he will have to solve if his team are to pick up qualification points.

The manager referenced the fact that his players created good chances to score in all three of the defeats and, of course, they thought they had snatched a dramatic late draw in Copenhagen before Callum Marshall's 97th-minute strike was ruled out by VAR.

While Marshall does not feature this time, the return of Magennis and Washington to bolster the attack became even more important after the withdrawals of Lavery and Taylor.

Dion Charles, who opened his international account with a brace in San Marino in March, offers hope of goals, having picked up from where he left off last season with four goals in six appearances for Bolton Wanderers this season.

Effective wide players were a feature of O'Neill's first reign in charge and, although he has opted for a 3-5-2 formation during most of the four games so far, you get a sense from him that there could be more of an emphasis on attacking from the flanks as he welcomed the regular paying time that his out-and-out wingers hve been enjoying at club level.

Gavin Whyte is performing well at new-club Portsmouth and Mattie Kennedy is starting for Aberdeen, while Conor McMenamin has settled in well at St Mirren after making the summer move from Glentoran to the Scottish Premiership. Could we see them given more licence to attack?

Cherish Charles and maximise McNair

O'Neill was asked about Shea Charles and Paddy McNair specifically at the unveiling of his squad last week, and they are two players who could play a key role if Northern Ireland are to secure points from these next two games.

Charles, who has enjoyed an impressive start to his Southampton career after his summer move from Man City, is fast-becoming a favourite of the Northern Ireland supporters, with his composed performances in the centre of midfield often defying his 19 years.

Filling the deep-lying central midfield role vacated by injured captain Davis during this campaign, Charles has taken to international football like a duck to water and his move to the Saints will have boosted him further.

O'Neill spoke glowingly of Charles' ability and will be fully aware of how important he will be to Northern Ireland for many years to come, and will no doubt already be long down the road of forming that close working relationship that he always likes to develop with players who are integral to his team.

The 19-year-old does not look like a man who lets pressure get to him but O'Neill will want to ensure that he is given as much responsibility as he can carry without him feeling over-burdened, and having to do more than a player of his relative inexperience should.

McNair has long been a player that O'Neill has admired, right from when he first brought him into the squad in 2014 and gave him his debut in March 2015. The former Manchester United man became a regular under O'Neill after Euro 2016, with his driving runs from the right side of a three-man midfield making him a major asset.

However, the 28-year-old has not had the same influence during games for a few years now and O'Neill's return does not yet seem to have reinvigorated the Middlesbrough man, with O'Neill admitting last week that he has not played as well in the campaign so far as he would have hoped.

McNair's versatility - he regularly plays as a defender for his club but more often in midfield for his country - is something that managers no doubt appreciate but readjusting to different positions can present challenges.

Whether it is breaking forward from midfield, attacking from wing-back or in his more natural position in a back three, a return to form for McNair would be a huge positive for Northern Ireland.

Across the BBC banner
Across the BBC banner
Across the BBC footer
Across the BBC footer