Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland ride their luck as misfiring Czechs fail to break through

Visitors' goal lives a charmed life but, after harsh Euro exit, O'Neill's men will cherish their point

By Paul Ferguson

At the Parc des Princes in Paris 10 weeks ago, an emotional Northern Ireland complained of daylight robbery as Wales snatched victory and knocked them out of Euro 2016.

Last night in Prague, it was was payback time for Michael O'Neill's men.

Northern Ireland stole a point under the cover of darkness at the Generali Arena to kickstart their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.

In the long run, especially with Germany expected to run away with Group C, this point could prove crucial in the battle for second place with the Czechs and Norway.

But it will be a game easily forgotten - a turgid affair that was played in front of sparse crowd, with the Czech fans showing their frustration at their national team's lack of progression at the Euro finals.

Only for the 1,088 members of the Green and White Army, there would have been no atmosphere inside Sparta Prague's stadium.

The Czechs, under new boss Karel Jarolim, had 16 efforts on Northern Ireland's goal and only made keeper Michael McGovern make one save. They missed two glorious chances from just five yards out.

O'Neill made three changes from the team that started against Wales with defenders Craig Cathcart and Aaron Hughes not available while Corry Evans dropped to the bench after only coming back from a groin injury.

O'Neill opted for a tried and tested 4-3-3 formation with Lafferty, the goal hero of the Euro qualifying series, up front on his own.

In a back four where West Brom duo Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans joined forces in the centre, Fleetwood's Conor McLaughlin came in at right back, where he played with such distinction during the Euro qualifiers, while Millwall's Shane Ferguson was selected at left back.

Sunderland new boy Paddy McNair was brought in alongside Steven Davis, rather than in the holding midfielder role which last night was occupied by Ollie Norwood.

It was the Czechs, determined to put on a show to try and win back their home support, who showed much more impetus in the opening 20 minutes of this clash.

Northern Ireland were flat and sluggish, as though the late kick-off, 8.45pm, at the Generali Arena had caught them by surprise.

The Czechs were coming forward in waves, playing with authority while Northern Ireland were failing to put in any tackles of note. Indeed, the hosts should have taken the lead after just four minutes when Filip Novak played a great cross into the back post and, from five yards out, right back Pavel Kaderabek placed his shot over the bar.

Wing back Novak and Ladislav Krejci from Bologna were a danger down the left wing, but one of the statistically tightest defences in Europe stood firm.

Darida had shots blocked by McLaughlin and Norwood, McAuley and Evans were dominant in the air while the Czechs' possession wasn't resulting in clear-cut chances.

Greek official Tasos Sidiropoulos booked Norwood after a late challenge on Vaclav Kadlec as Northern Ireland tried to get into the game.

A keeper finally had a save to make on 29 minutes and it came from the visitors' first decent effort on goal.

Right back McLaughlin, who was becoming stronger, played the ball into a rampaging McNair and he hit a shot from 18 yards out that Czech keeper Tomas Vaclik pushed round the post for a corner.

Davis ran clear just before the interval but couldn't find Dallas and the half petered out.

Northern Ireland, rather than being sparked into life by an O'Neill team talk, started the second half nervously with Kadlec narrowly failing to connect six yards out, while keeper McGovern was flapping as he tried to claim the ball and there was general confusion when the Czechs were in possession.

On 55 minutes, the home team's intricate passing down the left ended in a lovely cut back, which evaded the Northern Ireland defenders, but Kadlec drilled his shot straight at McGovern, who made his first save of the night.

Ward, trying to win the ball back after receiving little help on the right, was booked and then Lafferty, who offered little in the game, was replaced by Charlton Athletic striker Josh Magennis.

Northern Ireland really needed a vibrant Dallas in the contest and, shortly after the substitution, he played a tantilising ball in, but neither Ward nor Magennis could get a proper connection and the opportunity was lost.

Novak missed an even better chance than Kaderabek on 62 minutes when he smashed the ball wide from just yards out with the goal gaping. Northern Ireland's defence had been caught flat-footed after a throw-in, McAuley wasn't able to clear the bouncing ball and it was a shocking miss by the Midtiylland ace.

O'Neill brought on Rangers full back Lee Hodson for Ferguson and then, with 16 minutes to go, introduced the super sub from the Euro finals, Niall McGinn, who replaced Ward.

But still the wasteful passes and crosses continued.

As the Northern Ireland defence were resolute, the Czech players continually held their heads in their hands and, even in the dying minutes, couldn't believe Kadlec struck his shot wide of McGovern's goal.

Relief at the final whistle for the men in white. One point gained rather than two lost - but a big point at that.

Belfast Telegraph


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