Germany will top the group so Northern Ireland need to Czech mate and overcome Norway to secure a World Cup play-off, says Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland will need to take the scenic route to Russia if they are to qualify for their first World Cup finals in 30 years.
At last night’s draw for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers in St Petersburg, which will start next September, Northern Ireland were pitted alongside World champions Germany, the Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and little San Marino.
Not since the days of Billy Bingham, Pat Jennings and Norman Whiteside in Mexico 1986 have the men in green graced the greatest stage of all.
Northern Ireland, under the guidance of manager Michael O’Neill, are on course to qualify for the Euro finals in France next year by finishing second in Group F — however the runners-up spot in a World Cup qualifying group will not secure a straight passage to Russia but will instead earn a two-legged play-off encounter with another country who have finished in the second in their group.
Boss O’Neill, speaking to Sunday Life immediately after the draw was made, admitted that Germany, as World champions, will be big favourites for top spot and then it should be a fight between the Czech Republic, Norway and Northern Ireland for that all important second place.
He believes the draw has allowed Northern Ireland to be “competitive” in the group and gives the country a realistic chance of securing a play-off spot and an opportunity to reach Russia in 2018.
“It probably could have been a lot worse if you look at Group A and the teams who came out from Pots five and six in the Republic’s group,” said O’Neill.
“Everyone will fancy Germany to win the group and that is understandable as they are World champions, so I expect we will be battling for second place. Germany is the glamour tie in the group and I’m glad we’ve drawn them. That should be a great occasion at Windsor Park.
“The Czech Republic are a quality side and are doing very well in a tough European qualifying group. They always have stand-out individual talent. Those will be tough games.
“Norway I don’t think are as good as they used to be but I’ll need to watch how they get on the Euro qualifiers.
“Azerbaijan we know all about having played them in the last World Cup qualifiers. We didn’t fair so well against them in terms of results, but we’ve improved greatly as a team since we played them.
“They have Robert Prosinecki (former Croatian star) as their boss so it will be interesting to face them again.
“San Marino we’ll respect like we do all the teams but we’d hope to get two good wins over them. Really though, a lot will depend on whether we reach the finals in France next year.
“If we do, then we go into the World Cup qualifiers with a great deal of momentum.”
Reaching the Euro finals could also bring an end to a number of players’ careers on the international stage.
Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes and Roy Carroll would all be expected to bring the curtain down and leave the Northern Ireland fold on a remarkable high.
O’Neill admits: “We have to be realistic with the ages of some our players so by the time the World Cup qualifiers come round in September 2016 we may have to blood new young players. I’m only talking about one or two — because we don’t have a big waiting list.
“But obviously there will be a few additions to the team and squad.
O’Neill, whose contract only includes the Euros at the minute, will agree to sign a new contract to cover the 2018 World Cup qualifying period if Irish FA chiefs — and, more importantly, the players — want him to remain at the helm.
“I’ll have been in charge of the national team for four years and in many ways that is a long time to be in charge of an international team. I’ll take soundings from my senior players and gauge the conversation. I’ll only remain if the players want me to be there. I don’t want to get stale.
“I need to make sure we continue the progress we’ve made.
“But the World Cup is a long way off — we have hugely important games in the Euro qualifiers and, while it was interesting to see who we drew, it's not my immediate concern.”