Belfast Telegraph

Now the going gets tough for Northern Ireland, says Jonny Evans

West Brom star happy with team's return so far but reckons the second part of qualifying will be harder

By Graham Luney

Jonny Evans has warned his Northern Ireland team-mates that the road to the World Cup Finals in Russia is about to get more treacherous.

Michael O'Neill's men are where they want to be - in second position in Group C behind world champions Germany - but the job isn't anywhere near done yet and the West Brom ace is taking inspiration from the famous phrase 'When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going'.

Northern Ireland hammered Azerbaijan 4-0 on Friday night to net seven points from four matches and fire out a warning to their rivals in the hunt for a cherished play-off place.

They are five points behind Germany and with the world champions expected to cruise to automatic qualification, O'Neill's troops must be the best of the rest.

With Northern Ireland above Azerbaijan on goal difference, the Czech Republic only two points behind and Norway four points adrift, the mission is nowhere near accomplished, however, and Evans feels there are many tough tests to pass before a first World Cup Finals appearance since 1986 becomes a reality.

"There's a long way to go," said the former Manchester United defender. "The way the group's gone is as we've expected, it's as we've wanted.

"We've got tough games coming up, Czech Republic at home, Norway home and away - obviously that's going to be the last game - Germany at home, they're going to be big games and the second part of this group is going to really, really tough.

"It's probably going to be harder than the start we've had so we've put ourselves in a good position and it's important to capitalise on that."

Northern Ireland's next qualifier at home to Norway in March will be pivotal in their attempt to make the finals and O'Neill has already indicated it is "huge".

The preparations for that Norway clash start tomorrow night in a friendly against Croatia at Windsor Park when players looking to impress O'Neill will have a chance to shine. Competition for places is now fierce but the players who delivered on the big stage against Azerbaijan proved they can thrive under the pressure.

Evans added: "We knew how they would play and playing Josh (Magennis) on the right gave us an aerial advantage and we were able to put the ball on top of them.

"I think we tired them and played some really good diagonal balls into the box and just forced them to defend.

"For the second home match running we were able to capitalise by scoring goals when we created chances.

"The set pieces were important. I think when Josh is in the team it's a great asset to have (long throws). He's got a great throw and I think he even surprised us with how far he could actually throw it.

"Sometimes it's quite hard to judge. It's a really great asset. With his height, he's an asset on that side of the pitch and with the long throws as well." Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley, Conor McLaughlin and Chris Brunt got the goals as the previously unbeaten Azerbaijan were dispatched is stunning style.

It was Brunt's second Northern Ireland goal and McLaughlin's first, leaving Evans - who has only netted once for his country - a little envious. "I said after the game: 'Is there any chance of one of them falling on my head?'," joked the 28-year-old. "But Gareth (McAuley) has a great record from set pieces, at club level as well, he's fantastic and he really attacks the ball well.

"It was great to see Conor score. It is very pleasing for him because he has been such a consistent performer since he came into the squad and he's such a great lad as well."

Evans' only goal for his country came on his 16th appearance when he helped Northern Ireland to an impressive 3-2 World Cup qualifying success over Poland at Windsor Park in March, 2009.

But while strikers crave goals, defenders get their kicks from clean sheets and Evans was thrilled with back to back 4-0 triumphs in this campaign after San Marino were given the same ruthless treatment last month.

"There was a period in the second half when they kept the ball well and you think to yourself as a defender you want to make sure they don't score and get back into the game," he added. "Once we got the third goal that killed the game off. The group is panning out as we expected it so far."

Northern Ireland have made a good start but producing a good finish is what really matters.

Belfast Telegraph

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