Belfast Telegraph

It's a big game but Northern Ireland have no fear, insists Michael O'Neill

We want to get this done and dusted, says boss as he targets three points against the Czechs

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is certain his players will have no fear entering tonight's high stakes World Cup showdown against the Czech Republic at Windsor Park.

The equation is simple: if O'Neill's team avoid defeat they will be sure to finish second in Group C with two games left to play and with that scenario Northern Ireland would be in a fantastic position to reach the November play-offs for a shot at next year's finals in Russia.

An away win in Belfast would move the Czechs to within four points of Northern Ireland and then it could get edgy. The final matches for O'Neill's side are at home to World Champions and table topping Germany and away to Norway while the Czechs face a trip to Azerbaijan and host San Marino.

Best to get it all done and dusted this evening then. The Northern Ireland boss is not thinking any other way and is confident his players feel the same, having successfully come through massive matches like this when qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals.

"The experience of the last qualifying campaign has been invaluable," says O'Neill (right).

"The dressing room is assured and composed and the players are looking forward to the game.

"It's a big match but it is not something they fear. You can tell the team is ready to play."

He adds that if the players can add a World Cup finals to a place at last year's European Championships, they will enter the annals of football history in this country.

"I've learnt to trust my players, you do that with every camp you have and with every good result," says O'Neill.

"Trust develops with players and the group. They have also developed an assurance and a belief which is great to see.

"For those players to get an opportunity to go to a World Cup would be phenomenal and when you view them based on their international careers you'll find some players in our squad that will be up there with the best ever players to play for Northern Ireland."

O'Neill is already rated alongside with Peter Doherty and Billy Bingham as the greatest managers the nation has had.

Since his appointment in December 2011, Northern Ireland have travelled a mighty long way and continue to move forward at pace. They have won five of their last six games in this campaign having drawn the opening match 0-0 in the Czech Republic one year ago.

"In that first game, there was a bit of an unknown there, players were not playing at their clubs, our front four had played very little football and we were picking from a difficult situation to assess where we were," explained O'Neill.

"Some people said we didn't play well over there but playing away from home in international football can be difficult and a draw was a decent result.

"We didn't expect, however, to have a seven point gap between ourselves and the Czech Republic at this stage.

"Sometimes fixtures give you a little bit of an advantage. The Czechs have to play San Marino and we have three tough games to finish so it can be a little deceiving at times.

"What I've learned is to have the points in the bank as soon as possible, it's much more difficult to try and make the ground up, so we're delighted with the position we're in.

"We know the Czech Republic are capable of winning their last three games, so we will aim to make sure we can put this to bed against them."

O'Neill rejects the notion though that even with a win or draw tonight, Windsor Park should be in full party mode post final whistle, insisting that there will still be much for Northern Ireland to do to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time since Mexico 1986.

"Whether the fans turn up for a party or not is their decision, there's been no invitations," said the former Newcastle and Hibs player with a smile.

"It's not going to be a party, the players aren't expecting a party, we've nothing to celebrate just yet.

"We have to play a play-off, 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."

That said what Northern Ireland have delivered already in this group has been outstanding. The question was asked at yesterday's pre-match press conference if the team get enough credit outside of the country.

"We got our customary 15 seconds on Football Focus which we were delighted with," stated O'Neill in sarcastic tone.

He added: "For a team with the resources we have and for a small country to be where we are in the rankings and ­fighting for qualification, the players deserve enormous ­credit."

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