Belfast Telegraph

Comment: There is no stopping Northern Ireland's superheroes, who refuse to take their capes off

Steven Beacom gives his view from Windsor Park

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill punched the air with delight as the final whistle blew. The master motivator and supreme tactician had done it again. His team, full of talent, tenacity and togetherness, had done it again.

There really is no stopping these Northern Ireland players.

When they qualified for Euro 2016 they became sporting superheroes for our wee country and they refuse to take their capes off.

Last night O'Neill and his magnificent men moved a giant step closer to the nation's first World Cup finals since 1986 by defeating the Czech Republic 2-0 at Windsor Park with goals from West Brom duo Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt.

The win guaranteed Northern Ireland a second place finish in Group C and with it a probable spot in the November play-offs.

On current form, O'Neill's side will fear nobody when that time comes. They have become adept at dealing with massive matches and high-pressure situations and will relish taking on whoever they are drawn against in a two-legged tie to determine if they will go to Russia next year.

If you thought the atmosphere at Windsor for the victory over the Czechs was electric with the new stadium bouncing in celebration of another famous victory, wait until the play-offs…

Northern Ireland may have only needed a draw to confirm themselves as runners-up behind World Champions Germany, but they were never going to settle for one. O'Neill has transformed the team into winners in body, mind and soul. That's how they play now, with confidence, composure and class.

For sure the Czechs, needing a victory to keep their World Cup hopes alive, had more possession in the first half but crucially they lost out in a fascinating game of patience.

The visitors were passing the ball around waiting for an opening that never came because Northern Ireland maintained their concentration, discipline and shape.

Goalkeeper Michael McGovern wasn't severely tested as O'Neill's men defended brilliantly as a unit with centre-backs Evans and Aaron Hughes in commanding form.

It's almost impossible to believe that Hughes is 38 in November. He should be at home with his pipe and slippers yet continues to shine like a beacon on the international stage.

Last night he made his 108th appearance at the highest level, equalling the number of caps won by England's legendary World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore.

Along with the iconic Moore, Hughes is now Britain's most capped defender. He's likely to have that honour all to himself next month.

Hughes was not the only hero in green. They all were with Evans and Brunt delivering.

Evans was supposed to join Manchester City for £30 million in the transfer window. Northern Ireland fans will tell you he is worth £100 million now after his header opened the scoring in the 28th minute. The former Manchester United ace had the freedom of Belfast to head home from close range.

Not to be outdone, his WBA team-mate Brunt netted a stunning free-kick, won cleverly by Corry Evans. It was a fantastic strike from Brunt, who had a splendid game with his sharp passing from left back a feature in starting attacks.

Completing the back four was Conor McLaughlin, who recovered from a head injury early on to produce yet another solid display as Northern Ireland kept their SEVENTH clean sheet in eight qualifiers. Remarkable.

Ahead of them, captain Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood, Corry Evans, Stuart Dallas, Josh Magennis and Conor Washington showed a mixture of graft and craft in an outstanding team performance.

This Northern Ireland side is special. So too the manager.

What O'Neill has done for the people of this country is make them feel proud of their football team once again.

And you just know he and his superhero players are not finished yet. Russia…prepare yourselves… Northern Ireland is coming your way.

Belfast Telegraph

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