Belfast Telegraph

Sports Awards

Home Sport Football

Michael O'Neill: Northern Ireland will be feared in World Cup play-offs

Michael O'Neill thinks nobody will fancy facing Northern Ireland in the play-offs for the World Cup finals after they virtually assured their place in them by beating Czech Republic 2-0 in Belfast.

West Brom's Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt both found the net in the first half as O'Neill's side, who only needed a draw to guarantee second place, got all three points to all-but ensure they will have a shot at going to Russia in a two-legged November play-off.

The likes of Portugal, Italy and Sweden could lie in wait then, but O'Neill reckons even the European heavyweights would not relish playing a nation that has accrued 19 points from a possible 24 so far and kept more clean sheets than anyone on the continent.

"The fear is getting to the play-offs and not getting through it, the opposition will be what it will will be," O'Neill said.

"Hopefully the draw - if and when we're in that position - will be somewhat kind to us. It's very difficult, who would you want in that scenario?

"Probably teams would say they wouldn't have minded playing Northern Ireland, but if they look at us over this campaign they'll probably say, actually no, we'd rather avoid Northern Ireland.

"(The win) has given us 19 points which when we go into the pot of second-placed teams, we've got 13 at the moment (as results against the bottom team are discounted). I look back at the qualification for Brazil (in 2014) and 13 was enough, Denmark missed out with 10.

"We'll just have to wait and see, hopefully between now and game 10 there's a load of other draws in every other group and 13 is more than enough!"

Evans set the ball rolling with a first-half header from a semi-cleared corner to register just his second international goal ever, and his first since March 2009.

The 29-year-old West Brom centre-back left for international duty last week unsure if a move to Manchester City would come off and, when it did not, he responded with two colossal performances to show why Pep Guardiola's men should have done more to land him.

"Jonny's been brilliant this week," O'Neill said.

"He's had a lot on his plate but he deals with it so well and his performances in both of the games were fantastic.

"The Czechs are physical and they had a lot of movement in front of them, you need a player with top-class game intelligence to deal with that, and that's something that Jonny has in abundance. He's great at organising the players around him.

"We have played eight games and had seven clean sheets, Jonny Evans has played in all eight games, I don't think that's a coincidence. I think whoever plays beside Jonny almost becomes a better player for it. I thought he was immense."

His club colleague Brunt, who missed Euro 2016 with a knee injury, was also singled out for praise after he dispatched a 25-yard free-kick to double Northern Ireland's advantage four minutes before the break.

"I'm not sure if there is a better left foot in the English game," O'Neill said of Brunt.

"His delivery from set-pieces is phenomenal . Chris was a huge loss for us in France."

Exactly one year on from a 0-0 draw between the two countries in Prague, the Czechs needed to win to stay alive and boss Karel Jarolim saw his team's hopes dashed by two goals from set-pieces.

"I am disappointed because we knew that the Northern Ireland team is very strong in this situation," he said.

"Both of the goals are easy so it destroyed all our plans and that's why I'm very disappointed.

"It was hard but all the time I was hoping we'd score one goal and I thought the game might be different but we didn't have any chances and then it's quite difficult to score a goal."

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph