Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland firmly on course to eclipse their Euro heroics with World Cup qualification


Paul Ferguson

Northern Ireland will not be top of the tree at Christmas, but they are exactly where they want to be in Group C as 2016 draws to a close.

Lying second with seven points after four games means that the mini-target has been achieved. Come 2017, Northern Ireland are right in the mix for World Cup qualification. Cue excitement, nervous tension and great drama.

Forget about Germany, they've won the group already. So the battle as predicted is all about second place which should earn a play-off match to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

I said should, because only eight out of the nine second placed teams earn the right to a play-off match.

But Northern Ireland can't concern themselves with that level of detail at the minute, their job is to secure second place and that is a big enough task at present.

After Friday's night emphatic 4-0 win over Azerbaijan they've given themselves a real chance.

And they've done it by improving their performance in each game.

They may have started sluggish against the Czech Republic in September but they still came away from Prague with a point. In the last two games, the defeat to Germany and that big win over Azerbaijan, they have been very impressive. Yes in Hannover despite the 2-0 loss, Northern Ireland acquitted themselves well, much better than in the Euro 2016 clash in Paris last June.

The men in green have been forced to overcome injuries to key players - Craig Cathcart hasn't played in this campaign, Stuart Dallas has missed the last two games and Jamie Ward was ruled out of Friday's clash with a fractured wrist - and with a limited pool to choose from, that has just made the task even more difficult, but boss Michael O'Neill and his players have simply rolled up their sleeves and got on with the job in hand.

After the Euros the Northern Ireland camp could have unravelled - especially considering for every single player it was the pinnacle of their careers.

But there wasn't a raft of retirements with only Chris Baird calling it quits.

Gareth McAuley is playing better than ever, Aaron Hughes gave an assured display in Germany while Ward continues to be a little terrier for Northern Ireland, playing off the main striker.

Manager O'Neill isn't afraid to change things around if need be as Kyle Lafferty has found to his cost at times. O'Neill's put so much faith in striker Josh Magennis during this campaign and the Charlton striker, full of confidence, terrorised the Azerbaijan defence on Friday night, dropping the shoulder, using his strength and speed to great effect and he was unlucky not to score his second international goal with a blistering first half effort.

Corry Evans and Shane Ferguson never let their manager down, full back Conor McLaughlin is reproducing his Euro 2016 qualifying displays and the returning Chris Brunt now adds so much experience and control at left back.

Skipper Steven Davis continues to be Northern Ireland's magician in the middle of the park, Ollie Norwood is his able assistant and Jonny Evans is one of the finest defenders in Europe proving in each international he plays in that Louis van Gaal was mad to let him leave Man United.

Lafferty, by his own admission not 100% match fit due to his situation at Norwich, is still scoring goals - Friday's strike was his 10th in the last 13 qualifying games.

The fact Northern Ireland are unbeaten in over three years at Windsor Park tells you about the consistency, heart and desire of a squad of men, of various ages, who are totally committed to bringing success to their country.

Croatia are next for Northern Ireland tomorrow night but really the result is irrelevant in the greater scheme of things - that game is all about rewarding the fringe players in O'Neill's squad.

After the long winter break, Norway at home in March will be a pivotal game. Win that and Northern Ireland really can consider themselves favourites for second spot.

It was often stated at the Euro 2016 finals that in the modern era it would take something extraordinary to eclipse what happened in France.

Well, as Northern Ireland fans found on last Friday night at a rain-drenched Windsor Park, something very special is unfolding before their very eyes.

It would not be unwise to apply for a Russian visa form.

Belfast Telegraph


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