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Northern Ireland team fired up ahead of tonight's World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic in Prague

By Paul Ferguson in Austria

Re-energised and fired-up Ollie Norwood insists this current Northern Ireland team are not prepared to be considered 'one tournament wonders'.

Northern Ireland stunned world football by qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals in France and then created further shock waves when they reached the knock-out stages of the competition.

Now on the eve of their opening World Cup 2018 qualifying match against the Czech Republic in Prague, midfielder Norwood says every player in Michael O'Neill's squad is fully focused on making a quick return to the finals stage.

But to reach Russia in two years' time, Northern Ireland must successfully navigate a group that contains World champions Germany, the Czechs, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino with only the group winner qualifying for the finals automatically and the second-placed team going into a play-off.

"You get a taste of it and you want more," admitted 25-year-old Norwood, who was the only Northern Ireland player to perform in every Euro 2016 qualifying and finals match.

"Being involved in those games in France was incredible - the atmosphere, the fans, your family getting to see you playing at a major tournament.

"Once you experience that, you want even more of it.

"Yes, we know it's going to be difficult with the Germans in our qualifying group, but there's no reason why we can't target getting second place and the play-offs.

"Anything can happen then."

Norwood continued: "We've got to be realistic. We can't say we're going to win the group with Germany in the group.

"We're not silly, but there's no reason why we can't target second place.

"We want to get points on the board early and we know what effect that can have."

As proved during the Euro 2016 qualifiers, momentum is key for a successful Northern Ireland assault on a campaign -especially with the mighty Germans coming up in Hannover next month.

The Czech Republic were once formidable opposition but are now a team in transition following a change in coach with Karel Jarolim at the helm and five players retiring from international football, including star keeper Petr Cech.

Norwood is therefore targeting a minimum of four points from the first two games with San Marino next up in Belfast after tomorrow night's clash against the Czechs at the Generali Arena.

The new Brighton ace said: "I've never been in as confident a group. We're confident coming here to get a result - whether that be a win or a draw.

"We want to start the campaign positively. Without being disrespectful, our first home game in front of a full brand new stadium is San Marino.

"It couldn't have worked out better for us in that sense. If we can go into the Germany game with four or six points, that's got to be the aim.

"Momentum is a massive thing as we saw in the last campaign. Nobody really gave us a chance and we won the first three games."

While the Czech Republic prepared for tomorrow's match with a friendly game against Armenia last Wednesday night, Northern Ireland have been working hard high in the Austrian mountains at a beautiful alpine resort.

Today they will fly to Prague by private charter, however Michael Duffy will not be on the flight. The Celtic player, on loan at Dundee and in the senior squad for the first time, returned yesterday after picking up a thigh injury.

Belfast Telegraph

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