Belfast Telegraph

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Northern Ireland showing they have tools to get qualification job done


By Steven Beacom

Job done. Move on. Another big evening at Windsor Park awaits. Avoid defeat against the Czech Republic in Belfast on Monday and Northern Ireland will have secured second spot in their World Cup qualifying group and a probable play-off place.

And with two games to spare. That's mighty impressive.

This brilliant Northern Ireland side continue to deliver.

Michael O'Neill and his players made more history in San Marino last night as they won their fourth competitive international in a row.

It's remarkable to think that no Northern Ireland side had ever done that before, but these lads are breaking new ground all the time.

Effervescent off the pitch, Josh Magennis was highly effective on it netting twice in a 3-0 success with skipper Steven Davis slotting home a penalty as the visitors upped the ante in the second half.

When Northern Ireland qualified for the Euro 2016 finals with a 3-1 home victory over Greece, Davis and Magennis were also on target.

The pair of them have been superb in this campaign. Don't bet against them hitting the net against the Czechs when Windsor will be rocking and rolling like 18,000 Elvis tribute acts.

In the past games against so called minnows have been a case of Heartbreak Hotel for Northern Ireland giving the fans nightmares, putting managers under pressure and making players question their international futures.

Even during Billy Bingham's golden period in the 80s, Northern Ireland were stunned by underdogs.

The bosses that followed him, Bryan Hamilton, Lawrie McMenemy, Sammy McIlroy and Nigel Worthington all suffered humiliating defeats when their sides were heavy favourites. And O'Neill's opening campaign in charge was littered with failures against opposition that should have been despatched.

In the 2014 World Cup qualifiers these were some of the results: Northern Ireland 1-1 Luxembourg, Northern Ireland 1-1 Azerbaijan, Luxembourg 3-2 Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan 2-0 Northern Ireland.

O'Neill has worked wonders for Northern Ireland. He's revered and respected for what he has done for the country, where he has taken the team and the enormous strides made at the highest level of football, but one massive improvement that he does not receive enough credit for is how he has coached the team to deal with games they are expected to win.

The Green and White Army no longer fear taking on lesser lights. Matches versus nations like San Marino are to be embraced, to be enjoyed and ultimately to be won.

O'Neill's Northern Ireland team do not slip on banana skins any more. Attitudes are right approaching these fixtures now. Patience is in evidence and the quality is there to see it through.

In the successful Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland defeated the Faroe Islands 2-0 at Windsor Park and 3-1 away from home.

That set the tone and in the current campaign, Davis and his team-mates have continued to collect the points when facing sides with no prospect of reaching a major tournament.

Northern Ireland 4-0 San Marino, Northern Ireland 4-0 Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan 0-1 Northern Ireland and last night it was San Marino 0-3 Northern Ireland.

Yes, the goals didn't come until the second half, but the visitors were always in control and never in any danger of conceding - seven games into Group C and still only Germany have scored against Northern Ireland.

With Oliver Norwood probing with astute passing, O'Neill's men would have led at the break with better finishing. As time ticked by with the score still 0-0, O'Neill kept cool and made a clever change, replacing Kyle Lafferty with Shane Ferguson allowing Magennis to move into a central striking position.

From that point San Marino's resistance was over as Charlton star Magennis showed a striker's instinct to grab a brace with captain fantastic Davis adding a spot-kick and his 10th international goal for good measure. And now for that massive match with the Czechs, who lost to Germany last night. Bring it on. What an occasion that promises to be.

Belfast Telegraph

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