O'Neill says in-form Northern Ireland 'deserve' chance to go to World Cup
Michael O'Neill believes Northern Ireland's players "deserve" a play-off to reach the World Cup in Russia after they set a new national record with a fourth successive win.
Two goals from Josh Magennis and a Steven Davis penalty - all scored between the 70th and 78th minute - clinched a 3-0 success at minnows San Marino as O'Neill's side followed up previous triumphs over Norway, New Zealand and Azerbaijan.
No other Northern Irish side has ever pieced together such a sequence, and only three have ever featured at a World Cup finals, but the current crop are in a fine position to follow the teams of 1958, 1982 and 1986.
They currently boast a seven-point advantage in second over Czech Republic with three qualifiers to come, and would guarantee at least a runners-up berth if they manage a draw against the Czechs in Belfast on Monday.
With eight of the nine second-placed sides then advancing to a two-legged play off in November to reach Russia, O'Neill knows his side have an excellent shot at being involved in back-to-back major tournaments.
"When we came into this campaign we were holding on to a fantastic experience of France and you never want the standards to drop," he said.
"You're always a little bit vulnerable, we didn't have an influx of players so it's testament to those players, to their motivation that they've continued to do what they've done, to put themselves in the position they're in, they deserve the chance to go to Russia.
"If we can take care of business on Monday night, and have a play-off to look forward to, it's something for us to relish.
"In essence, if we can do that, our World Cup will start in November."
San Marino had conceded 30 times in their previous six qualifiers, more than any other European nation, but they frustrated O'Neill's team for over an hour.
Goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini made three fine saves and Magennis hit a post before eventually breaking their resistance by turning home a smart Davis pass.
"There was a patience and assuredness about them, even in the second half, and a belief that they would get that goal," O'Neill added of his players.
"They never played without a calmness or any frantic football at any time. It was just a case of making sure we got the breakthrough and I was delighted when we did and that it was Josh because he had an excellent game."
Magennis was originally stationed on the right flank but moved inside when Kyle Laffety was taken off on the hour mark.
Though he has scored just once before in 29 international appearances, the Charlton forward is a popular figure with O'Neill and his colleagues alike.
"I was delighted because sometimes Josh puts an awful lot into the game but maybe doesn't get the goal or the credit," O'Neill said.
"For me, I can't remember a single time I've ever put Josh on the pitch and been disappointed. I thought he was excellent."