Belfast Telegraph

To Russia with love? Dream is on as Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans point way

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland's latest World Cup journey has begun. And it will end in Russia if Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley continue to produce as they did in the 0-0 draw in Prague last night.

The West Bromwich Albion duo were outstanding - the most impressive performers for manager Michael O'Neill in a patchy but ultimately rewarding evening.

O'Neill's men were not at their best in their opening Group C qualifier against the Czech Republic. Digging out a precious point, however, was a highly acceptable start to the campaign and a bitter blow for the Czechs who will feel they should have claimed all three.

Even allowing for the excellence of Evans and McAuley at the back, the home side had chances. You would have expected that with the amount of possession they enjoyed.

Northern Ireland will feel fortunate that when opportunities came the Czechs blew them, most notably Filip Novak who somehow screwed a shot wide from seven yards with the goal at his mercy in the second half.

I have a feeling Novak and his team-mates are going to regret that when the qualifiers are over.

After the epic Euro 2016 adventure, prior to last night's clash with the Czechs, there was hope and expectation amongst the Green and White Army that Northern Ireland could be Moscow bound in 2018, 32 years after their last appearance at the World Cup finals.

But the supporters aren't stupid.

They all know the way to get there will be through the play-offs.

For the 2018 World Cup, there is only one automatic place guaranteed and that goes to the team topping the table.

As sure as Strictly Come Dancing will beat The X-Factor in the TV ratings, World Champions Germany will finish first in Group C.

They issued a notice of intent with a 3-0 away win in Norway to kick-off their series with a bang.

That leaves Northern Ireland scrambling for a play-off place and a runners-up spot against Norway and the Czechs with Azerbaijan a dangerous commodity on their home turf and San Marino the whipping boys of the section. Had the Czechs won last night, as they should have done, they would have gained a crucial advantage on their rivals early on.

The fact they fluffed their lines will be huge for Northern Ireland as the group goes on.

Within the mini-league, O'Neill's men must come out on top against the Czechs and they will fancy doing that when the teams meet again at Windsor Park. There is nothing to fear from Norway either, especially with quality like Evans and McAuley on your side.

Word has it that West Brom boss Tony Pulis is considering his future over the club's transfer policy. If anything will make him stay it's knowing he will have the chance to work with quality defenders like 'Big G' and Jonny for another season.

What a boost it is to have McAuley, at 36, still playing international football. Fears that he would retire from Northern Ireland duty after Euro 2016 thankfully proved unfounded. In the first half he was superb against the Czechs.

Evans took up the mantle after the break, continuing his brilliant international form following on from his exceptional summer in France. With Craig Cathcart to return from injury, defensively Northern Ireland will be strong in this campaign and midfielders like Steven Davis will create more as the games progress.

One concerning issue for O'Neill, though, is in attack with Kyle Lafferty not playing at Norwich. That showed in his laboured 59 minutes last night.

Lafferty needs game time at club level.

Overall though, Northern Ireland can be content. The 0-0 draw in Prague gives O'Neill a platform for another thrilling ride.

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