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Current Northern Ireland crop should be regarded among best ever, says O'Neill

Michael O'Neill insists some of Northern Ireland's current players should be considered among the country's greatest ever having given themselves a chance to reach back-to-back major tournaments.

A draw against the Czech Republic on Monday will guarantee second place in Group C, and almost certainly a play-off berth to go to the World Cup next summer two years after making the Euro 2016 knock-out stages.

The Northern Irish have featured in three previous World Cup finals, in 1958, 1982 and 1986, but missed out on the Euros in 1984 on goal difference, so O'Neill's team would be the first to make successive tournaments should they secure their passage to Russia.

It is for that reason that their boss thinks the likes of captain Steven Davis and defenders Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley must be recognised alongside the best players Northern Ireland has ever produced, such as George Best, Pat Jennings and Danny Blanchflower.

"My real satisfaction in all of this is for our players, particularly those close to 100 caps, to get the opportunity to go to a World Cup. It's phenomenal, particularly off the back of the Euros," O'Neill said.

"We'll talk about the great players and who's Northern Ireland's greatest player but when you view players based on their international careers, you'll find some players in our squad will have international careers that will rank up with the best ever players that have played for Northern Ireland."

Optimism and expectation has only grown across the country since O'Neill guided them to France last summer after three decades without summer tournament football.

Monday's clash with the Czechs is being viewed as another night of celebration if the Northern Irish clinch second, but with the play-off picture still to be decided after that, and then negotiated in November, O'Neill sees no reason why there should be a Windsor Park party.

"We have to be realistic, we've nothing to celebrate just yet," he stressed.

"We have to play a play-off game, there's a lot more football to be played. If we do get second place it's a fantastic achievement, but it doesn't guarantee us a place in Russia, the players know that and I know that."

What should be celebrated is how impressive Northern Ireland, now ranked 23rd in the world, have been since they began their campaign a year ago on Monday with a 0-0 draw in Prague.

That was one of six clean sheets in the campaign to date - only England had recorded as many after seven games - and in taking 16 points from a possible 21 they equalled the tallies of former World Cup winners France and Italy.

"We're a small country and to be where we are in the rankings and in terms of qualification, I think the players deserve enormous credit," O'Neill added.

"The biggest challenge after France was to maintain (our levels) but I think we've actually brought it on a level."

Davis will earn his 97th cap at Windsor Park on Monday night and will likely join Aaron Hughes and Jennings in the century club during the play-offs if Northern Ireland get there.

However, the Southampton midfielder is focused on a bigger prize than that personal accolade.

"If we could qualify for the World Cup that would mean more than getting 100 caps," Davis declared.

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