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Fearless Gareth McAuley primed for crucial Czech Republic date

He believes September showdown will be pivotal to Northern Ireland's play-off ambitions

By Paul Ferguson

Gareth McAuley wants a Windsor Park shoot-out with the Czech Republic for the right to earn a play-off match which will decide who goes to Russia for the 2018 World Cup finals.

Having defeated Norway 2-0 on Sunday night, Northern Ireland are sitting proudly in second place on 10 points in Group C behind runaway leaders Germany.

The Norwegians, under new boss Lars Lagerback, have effectively been eliminated from the race for second spot as they have only registered three points from five games in this campaign - and those were against minnows San Marino.

Following a 4-1 defeat to Germany in Baku, Azerbaijan have moved down to fourth place on seven points with the Czech Republic now in third, one point ahead.

With the Czechs playing unfancied Norway in the next set of qualifying fixtures on June 10 and Northern Ireland travelling to Azerbaijan, McAuley believes if the men in green can secure a vital victory - and, as expected, the Norwegians succumb to defeat in Oslo - the battle for the play-off place will become a two horse race.

Northern Ireland are due to play the Czechs in Belfast three days after facing San Marino away in early September.

McAuley says: "It's looking now if we can win in Azerbaijan in the summer, it'll probably come down to the Czech Republic game in September.

"Hopefully that will decide if we finish in second place and get in the play-offs.

"But the game in Baku will be tough. Some of the lads' club seasons will have been finished for four or five weeks.

"They won't have played much football or done much training. Playing in that heat is also going to be difficult for us and also different.

"It'll be a challenge for us but, if we want to get to a play-off position at the end of the group, we've got to go there and get a result.

"Germany have to come here as well and we'll give it our best shot, but they are the world champions so getting above Germany is going to be impossible - we can forget about that.

"However, we'll give it a good go. We are good here on our own pitch so we don't fear anybody at Windsor."

If Northern Ireland were to reach their second successive major tournament finals, McAuley would be heading to Russia at the grand old age of 38.

Pat Jennings at the age of 41 and Gerry Armstrong at 32 famously retired from international football after playing against Brazil at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.

McAuley will still be playing Premier League football next season after being offered a new one year deal by West Brom boss Tony Pulis, but does the thought of finishing his career at the World Cup drive him on?

"Yeah," he states, "but it's not something I'm pinning my hopes on.

"It would be nice, but I'm playing a season at a time.

"I'll get to the end of this season and hopefully play in the summer (in Azerbaijan). I've also got football to play next season before I start thinking about World Cups and so on.

"It's going to be tough. There are games in this group we need to get points from.

"Hopefully we'll have a play-off game but that will also be extremely difficult.

"At this moment I'm loving playing football and want to play for as long as I possibly can."

Though McAuley has been fortunate throughout his career to remain virtually injury free, his defensive colleague Craig Cathcart has sadly missed serious time out due to various complaints all over his body.

The Watford defender, who had been sidelined with a groin and hernia issue, returned to the Northern Ireland team for the first time since Wales put Michael O'Neill's men out of Euro 2016 - and made a seamless transition back into the defence.

"Craig is a really important player for us and he showed that against Norway," adds McAuley.

"He's struggled with injury recently, especially this season, and that must have been so frustrating. Hopefully he will stay injury free and he can play as many games as possible for Watford before our next important qualifier."

Cathcart increased the quality in the team and they looked comfortable throughout - even when Norway had plenty of possession in the second half.

For years Northern Ireland could write the manual on how to self destruct and lose games but McAuley adds: "We've learned over the last few years how to win games, stay in games and see games out.

"It's coming together alright, but we've still got a bit of work to do.

"We're happy with where we are."

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