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We must set the bar higher: Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley

Big G knows NI need to play better in future battles

By Paul Ferguson

As the Northern Ireland players flew home from Prague to their respective clubs in the UK yesterday, emotions were mixed.

There was a real sense of relief closely followed by disappointment.

A point against the Czech Republic, after a 0-0 draw on Sunday night at the Generali Arena, has given Michael O'Neill's men a creditable start to their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign in a group that also contains World champions Germany, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.

Yet the players are only too aware that the Czechs missed two glaring goalscoring opportunities in the Group C clash.

The Czech Republic had plenty of possession but struggled to penetrate the Northern Ireland rearguard with goalkeeper Michael McGovern only having to make one save.

This was down in no small part to the solid performances of Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans, with the former Manchester United defender particularly immense, continuing his form from the Euros.

Defence, though, wasn't the main concern - Northern Ireland lacked a clear attacking threat, with only the odd breakaway giving them a sight at goal.

The Czech Republic have always been considered formidable opposition but following five retirements after the finals, and with the team in transition, Northern Ireland players feel it was an opportunity lost.

McAuley believes Northern Ireland fell short of their best.

"It says something that we are disappointed with a draw in the Czech Republic," said the 36-year-old. "There is a real belief we can do something more than just the Euros.

"A few lads had to stick in to get the result. There were a few out on their feet having not played as much football as they would have liked this season.

"We would have liked to have played better and to have more of an offensive performance but it wasn't to be. We showed a lot of heart to grind it out and we'll take that for now."

Since making his international debut 11 years ago against Germany, McAuley has played in five qualifying series - this will be his sixth and final campaign for his country.

Down the years, Northern Ireland have always found it difficult to grind out a positive result - especially away from home - so he insists it shows how far they have come under boss O'Neill.

McAuley conceded: "I said afterwards that we probably would have lost that game a few years ago. We've come to places like this and not played the best and lost so this is a good point away from home.

"The performance could have been better and we could have done things better but they pressed well and a lot of stuff had to go long.

"We would have liked to have played shorter but unfortunately we weren't able to do that.

"Coming away with a point is something we probably would have taken before the game."

McAuley and Northern Ireland will now turn their attention to San Marino in a month's time - the first game at a totally refurbished Windsor Park.

Excluding the Euro 2016 qualifiers, Northern Ireland have struggled to collect maximum points from the so-called minnows in the group and McAuley insists this must change - especially with only one straight passage to Russia and the second placed team likely going into a play-off.

Even against the Faroe Islands last time both home and away, there were some nervous moments - Roy Carroll had to save a penalty at Windsor and in Torshavn, Northern Ireland only won after the north Atlantic side had a man sent off.

In the disastrous 2012 World Cup qualifying series, O'Neill's first two years in charge, Northern Ireland only picked up two points against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg as they drew at home but lost both away.

O'Neill has targeted at least four points from their opening two games - as mighty Germany will be the opposition in the third clash in Hannover.

West Brom ace McAuley added: "It is important to pick up points at home, starting next month against San Marino. We want to be in a good position before we go to Germany. We've already seen first-hand how good they are so it's probably a race for second place.

"Our aim is to win the next one and go to Germany and give the best performance we can. There's a big difference in playing at Windsor and away but on our day we can take on anyone and hopefully that's the case when we go to Germany.

"It was just important that we didn't lose the first game."

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