Belfast Telegraph

No cry-offs for Czech Republic friendly prove that all remains positive in Northern Ireland camp, maintains upbeat O'Neill

 

Smiles of choice: Michael O’Neill will have a full panel to pick from this evening
Smiles of choice: Michael O’Neill will have a full panel to pick from this evening

By Paul Ferguson

The beauty, splendour and delights of Prague have a way to brighten up even the darkest mood.

With the Czech Republic capital currently enjoying an Indian summer, with T-shirts and shorts the order of the day, the sights of Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, the astronomical clock and Old Town Square all appear magical.

The Northern Ireland team are currently camped on the banks of the Vitava River ahead of tonight's friendly at the Generali Arena and, despite the bitter disappointment of Thursday night's cruel qualifying loss to the Netherlands in Rotterdam - not to mention Ronald Koeman's unnecessary broadside at their style of play - every single player in the squad is fully focused, re-energised and ready for the friendly fire.

In years gone past, it may have been convenient for some of the senior names to withdraw their services due to the status of the match, but boss Michael O'Neill insists he will have the option to select his strongest possible side this evening.

The manager does plan to make changes to give valuable experience, with Jordan Thompson, Matty Kennedy and Gavin Whyte in contention, while he has allowed youngsters Shayne Lavery and Ciaron Brown to leave the senior panel so they could fly to Bucharest to join up with the Under-21s, who have an important qualifier against Romania.

"When the friendly comes after a qualifier like this, you can go with arguably a stronger team and have fewer new players in the squad," conceded O'Neill.

"We will freshen the team up and it's important to give opportunities to players who have come to many squads and maybe not had many opportunities.

"It might be something we look at from a tactical point of view as well, but the big thing for me is everyone wants to play. No one has come saying, 'Can I sit this one out?'

"That tells you that everything in the group is positive, the players all want to play and, as we know, in the past that wasn't always the case with friendly internationals.

"It's a real positive for me and the preparation of the lads has been good."

O'Neill has decided to put off any video analysis of the team's performance against the Dutch until he returns home as it is currently 'irrelevant'.

Northern Ireland drew with the Czechs at the same venue three years ago in a World Cup qualifier and, in the return match in Belfast, the men in green triumphed 2-0 through Chris Brunt and Jonny Evans.

After shocking England on Friday night, O'Neill believes the Czechs - who have also enjoyed solid wins over Slovakia, Poland and Bulgaria in the last year - will be formidable opposition.

When you consider Northern Ireland haven't won an away friendly for 13 years - a 2-1 triumph over Finland - the challenge is considerable.

"It's a good game for us because the Czech Republic are an excellent side and they had an excellent win on Friday night so it's a great test for us playing so soon after they had an excellent result against England," said O'Neill.

"I wouldn't say I was surprised.

"We watched the game and it was a great performance. I suppose considering the result at Wembley (5-0) in March it was a big turnaround and shows the strength of the Czechs, their character.

"So we probably felt when we played previously in qualification for Russia 2018, the Czechs were developing - I think there were seven players that played against us in Belfast that also played against England, so there is good consistency.

"They are obviously more experienced and we were very impressed by what we saw in the game on Friday night, having watched it back.

"That's good, it will be a stiff test for us, their coach may make changes but the main thing is that both teams get what they want from the game."

Home boss Jaroslav Silhavy, who was appointed 13 months ago, plans to make sweeping changes after Friday's tremendous win.

Sparta Prague's Josef Husbauer will come in to captain the side at his home stadium.

The 29-year-old midfielder came on as a substitute during that 2-0 triumph for Northern Ireland back in September 2017.

"I still remember the last game we played when unfortunately we lost," he said.

"They were really strong in the counter-attack but also compact in defence.

"But this is a friendly so I don't expect them to just want to defend. They will attack so I hope for great football."

Husbauer has studied both Northern Ireland's courageous battles with Germany and the Netherlands during the last month and was impressed by O'Neill's side meeting the European superpowers head-on.

"We have watched their last two qualifiers and they played really well," he said.

"They were not only defending but attacking too and they had some great chances.

"You can see they are a very strong team and we will have to show the same strength we showed against England."

A positive result for Northern Ireland tonight would certainly not make up for the agony of losing to the Netherlands but it would be a great tonic with the Dutch coming to Belfast next month and might even send a message to Koeman that the men in green aren't such a 'terrible watch' after all.

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