Belfast Telegraph

Nobody wants to play us now, says Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

 

By Paul Ferguson

Triumphant manager Michael O'Neill believes teams throughout Europe will want to avoid his all-conquering Northern Ireland side in the World Cup play-offs.

O'Neill's men secured second place in Group C last night, five points behind leaders Germany, with a sensational 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic after first half goals from West Brom duo Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt.

But they have also likely assured their place in the play-offs in November for the right to reach Russia next year.

With only eight of the nine second placed teams in the groups going through to the play-offs, 13 points - as the wins over San Marino are discounted - should be enough for Northern Ireland to claim a place as back in 2014, 11 points was enough to see Croatia reach the two-legged affair.

O'Neill, having watched his side record their seventh clean sheet of the campaign, the best defensive record in Europe, knows his charges are now a respected force throughout the continent.

"The opposition will be what it will be," said O'Neill. "Hopefully the draw - if and when we're in that position - will be somewhat kind to us. It's very difficult, who would you want in that scenario? Probably teams would say they wouldn't mind playing Northern Ireland, but if they look at us over this campaign they'll probably say, actually no, we'd rather avoid Northern Ireland.

"But the fear is also getting to the play-offs and not getting through it."

It was another magical night at Windsor Park as Northern Ireland created yet more history by winning five consecutive internationals.

Northern Ireland were forced to soak up a great deal of pressure, however due to the stubborn resistance of the defence led courageously by man of the match Jonny Evans and the Czechs never really threatened Michael McGovern's goal.

O'Neill admitted: "I'm delighted with the result.

"We knew it would be tough and for long periods we didn't have the ball, but due to our defending, I can't remember Michael (McGovern) having to make any meaningful saves.

"You must show great patience when you don't have the ball and I thought our ability to get to the ball, maintain our shape and capitalise on chances - two set pieces for the goals - was fantastic."

Evans' headed goal, at the end of a week when he missed out on a big money move to Manchester City in the transfer window, was his first for his country since 2009 against Poland.

It capped a man of the match display by the West Brom captain.

O'Neill added: "Jonny's been brilliant this week as he's had a lot on his plate but he deals with it so well and his performances in both of the games were fantastic.

"The Czechs are physical and they had a lot of movement in front of them so you need a player with top-class game intelligence, something he has in abundance.

"We have played eight games, there has been seven clean sheets and Jonny Evans has played in all eight games for us. I don't think that's a coincidence."

Northern Ireland retain their proud home record of not having lost a competitive home fixture in Belfast since going down to Portugal in September 2013.

O'Neill's men have conceded only two goals in eight matches in this campaign, both away to Germany last year. No team has scored against the men in green in a home qualifier since Greece were dispatched 3-1 in October 2015 in the match which secured Euro 2016 qualification.

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