Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill: Northern Ireland will be ready for play-offs


Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

By Paul Ferguson

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill and star defender Jonny Evans believe Monday's superb 3-2 win over the Czech Republic will boost hopes of making it through a likely Euro 2020 finals play-off next March.

The side are still in the hunt for automatic qualification but with victories over European heavyweights Netherlands and Germany required next month, a more realistic pathway is through Uefa's back door system.

O'Neill's men are currently in a play-off position but will only be guaranteed their place at the conclusion of the campaign next month when all the results are in.

It could mean two games, a play-off semi-final and final, away from Belfast, and O'Neill and Evans hailed victory over the Czechs in Prague as proof of what they can achieve against top-level opposition outside the comfort zone of Windsor Park.

O'Neill revealed: "We said to the players if we are in a play-off situation we will have to come somewhere like this, to a similar opponent, and win the game. And if that is the case we will have to defend for our lives for the last 15 or 20 minutes of the game, which we had to do."

Evans, who again marshalled the defence superbly, added: "If we manage to get ourselves into a position where we secure a play-off, that would be fantastic."

Evans continued: “Games like Monday’s are important for that.

“These are probably the type of teams we are going to have to play away from home. Teams bombarding our box, being able to adapt tactically which was good about our performance.

“I think over the last couple of years we have shown that we are a team that can come away and get results. It’s good that we have been able to show consistency.”

Boss O’Neill chose to revert back to the favourite old formation of 3-5-2 against the Czechs as those players itching for game time on the bench were finally afforded their chance to shine.

Norwich City’s new Premier League goalkeeper Michael McGovern took over from Bailey Peacock-Farrell in goal, Sunderland centre-half Tom Flanagan joined a defensive back three with Evans and Craig Cathcart, Blackpool’s Jordan Thompson partnered skipper Steven Davis and Paddy McNair in midfield while Cardiff City winger Gavin Whyte and Burton hitman Liam Boyce were up front.

“I think we had to take a look,” admitted O’Neill. “We have very little time to work with the players and this was a chance to look at three at the back.

“We brought Tom into the team. It was strong but relatively inexperienced. Liam and Gavin up front aren’t experienced, Conor McLaughlin coming back in, Jordan Thompson… I think we fielded four players who have three or four caps each.

“We put experience around them, but the most important thing was those players get accustomed to playing international football, against top players.

“We started players who are playing Championship and League One football, playing against some players getting European football for Slavia Prague in the Champions League.”

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