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Jimmy Nicholl: 'Great to see Northern Ireland top of group'

Michael O'Neill's side beat Estonia on Thursday.

Assistant manager Jimmy Nicholl has urged Northern Ireland to capitalise on the momentum from their 2-0 win over Estonia when they face Belarus on Sunday.

Michael O'Neill's team made a winning start to their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign on Thursday thanks to second-half goals from Niall McGinn and Steven Davis.

The task has not changed going into Sunday's match with these opening home games both seen as must-win in the context of a difficult Group C which also includes Holland and Germany.

Six points may be a minimum requirement ahead of tougher tasks to come, but Nicholl also knows the confidence it would bring could change the entire outlook for Northern Ireland – and bring back memories of their successful Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.

"It's great seeing yourself top of the group rather than bottom," he said. "They proved it in the last qualifying campaign and it's the same in this one.

"The players will be sitting there thinking, 'We know how we felt last time'.

  1. Holland
  2. Northern Ireland
  3. Germany
  4. Estonia
  5. Belarus

"If we can get off to a flyer, get our heads down with Estonia and Belarus away in the summer, it's a chance to accumulate as many points as you wish if you go about your job properly, before we meet the obvious in Germany and Holland."

Thursday's home game against an Estonia side ranked 60 places below Northern Ireland was the easiest on paper, but victory was not always assured as the hosts huffed and puffed through the first half before McGinn broke the deadlock in the 56th minute.

O'Neill said he had done nothing to change his tactics from the same possession-based approach they used during the unsuccessful Nations League campaign, yet Nicholl said minor tweaks had made the difference in the second half.

Niall McGinn, centre, got the ball rolling on Thursday night
Niall McGinn, centre, got the ball rolling on Thursday night (Niall Carson/PA)

"We couldn't get (Steven) Davis on the ball, we couldn't get (Paddy) McNair on the ball, George Saville likes to be on the ball but we never managed it," he said.

"That affects the wide men but it just changed in the second half. Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans were stepping into the game and it was them knocking the ball wide.

"The game just changed dramatically. The wide men were crossing the ball and the wide men were scoring goals."

Nicholl expects a similar approach on Sunday – and similar personnel carrying it out.

Gareth McAuley returned to training on Friday after missing the Estonia match with a hamstring problem, but both Corry Evans (hamstring) and Gavin Whyte (thigh) remain sidelined, and Nicholl cautioned against making too many changes.

"You can make these decisions based on fitness levels, but if you bring one out you've got to make sure the next one is going to contribute," he said.

"We're not going to play them just because they're fresh. You've got to play them because they can do an equal job. I wouldn't like to think there'll be too many changes to be honest."

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Stuart Dallas in action for Northern Ireland in November 2018
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Monday's key events

· There are no Brits in the women's 100m hurdles final, but Puerto Rico's Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, fresh from breaking the Olympic record in the semis, will hope to pip world record holder Kendra Harrison to gold (3.50am)
· The women's 5000m final also has no Team GB representation, but two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya will be looking to add an Olympic gold to her list of honours (1.40pm)

· The women's skiff 49er FX (6.33am) and men's skiff 49er (7.33am) come to their conclusion, with Team GB involved in both medal races

· A place in the women's gold medal match is up for grabs, starting with an all-North American semi-final between United States and Canada (9am)
· Australia, who edged past Team GB's in a seven-goal quarter-final thriller, take on Sweden in the second semi-final (12pm)

· The track cycling schedule gets underway, with Team GB holding a particular interest in the team pursuit qualifying. Laura Kenny is part of the women's team (7.54am), while the men's team includes Ed Clancy (9.02am)

· The Gadirova twins Jessica and Jennifer will both take part in the women's floor final as they look to add to their team bronze (9.57am)

· Newly-crowned European champion Emily Campbell flies the flag for Great Britain in the women's +87kg, but faces stiff competition for medals from China's Li Wenwen and New Zealand's Laurel Hubbard (11.50am)

· The women's hockey quarter-finals begin, with Team GB last up against Spain (1pm)

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