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O'Neill's heroes on brink of taking on the World

N Ireland 2 Czech Rep 0

Paul Ferguson

Northern Ireland are effectively two games away from the World Cup finals in Russia.

Second place in Group C has been assured following an incredible 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic last night and even though there is two games remaining in the campaign, Michael O'Neill's men can start to prepare for the two-legged play-off affair in November.

A West Brom goalscoring double act made sure of all three points, a record fifth consecutive victory in a row and Northern Ireland are now on 19 points in Group C.

Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt both scored in the first half to eliminate the Czechs from World Cup qualification and propel O'Neill's men towards Russia.

Evans' opener was his first goal for Northern Ireland since 2009 and after 46 internationals had passed.

It didn't matter that the Czechs enjoyed 72% possession - they weren't allowed past a stubborn rearguard that is now the top defensive unit in Europe having recorded their SEVENTH clean sheet of the campaign

And remember the last two games have been without regular centre-backs Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart.

Instead Jonny Evans led his defenders with aplomb with veteran Aaron Hughes outstanding and Conor McLaughlin and Chris Brunt incredibly solid.

But this was a team effort and from the strikers Conor Washington down to keeper Michael McGovern, everyone played their part in yet another magical night.

Both teams made just one change from their games last Friday night.

As anticipated, O'Neill brought in Corry Evans to his midfield with Ollie Norwood further back and striker Kyle Lafferty reverting to the bench.

Bolonga's Ladislav Krejci, playing on the left wing, replaced Jan Kopic in the Czech team who knew nothing less than victory would do. Yet it was Northern Ireland who started with more authority, winning a corner after just two minutes and then Corry Evans having a half volley blocked by the face of Filip Novak.

It took the Czechs seven minutes to generate their first attack and after earning themselves a corner, Krejci flicked over the bar without troubling McGovern.

Three minutes later Conor McLaughlin was writhering on the ground in agony after being caught in the face by Jan Boril's arm following a cross field ball.

But despite the Northern Ireland fans chanting for a card, the Italian referee viewed the foul as non malicious and did not caution the Slavia Prague man.

The Czechs enjoyed lots of possession with Vladimir Darida attempting to pull the strings in midfield yet it was Northern Ireland who were creating the more clear cut chances.

Norwood, just like he did in San Marino last Friday night, was passing the ball with pinache and he fed Dallas on 21 minutes and his run and driving cross just evaded the foot of hitman Washington.

After soaking up sustained pressure from the Czechs, including the only save McGovern had to make in the first half from a Boril, Northern Ireland stunned their visitors with a goal in the 28th minute.

After Davis won a corner, following a cushion header from Magennis, Brunt's driven set piece was headed out only for Norwood to head the ball back into the danger area.

Jonny Evans was still lurking with intent and he rose high to direct the ball past Tomas Vaclik in the Czech goal.

Any hint of offside was as Theodor Gebre Selassier was still coming back from his position on the post from the corner as his team-mates pushed up.

The Czechs raced forward once again but the Northern Ireland defence, with midfielders Norwood and Corry Evans acting as wonderful barriers, were resolute, not allowing a shot on McGovern.

Then on 41 minutes came the goal that left the Czechs looking totally disconsolate realising their World Cup aspirations were over for another year.

Brunt, who had been defending with distinction in his left back position, stepped forward to take a free kick which had been brilliantly won by Corry Evans

Evans, having received the ball from Norwood just outside his own box basically ran the length of the pitch including doing a nice nut-meg, but when he realised little was on, with Washington marked, he used all his experience to win a free kick against Filip Novak.

From 25 yards out Brunt curled a delighted free kick into the bottom left hand corner and Windsor Park for the second time in 13 minutes absolutely erupted.

Having seen his team only test McGovern with a tame effort during the opening 10 minutes of the second half, manager Karel Jarolim made a double substitution on 55 minutes bringing on Josef Husbauer and Jan Kliment in an attempt to galvanise his team. It didn't work.

Having failed with a training ground prepared free kick which was intercepted by Jonny Evans, Tomas Kalas picked up the first yellow card of the night following a crude, late challenge on the West Brom defender.

O'Neill then made his first change of the night, whipping off striker Washington for Rangers defender Lee Hodson.

Magennis moved to play up front on his own and Northern Ireland now had a back five with McLaughlin just inside Hodson.

Veteran Hughes had to be alert just after the hour mark with the ball played through to the front of the box and his him facing his own goal with sub Kliment lurking with intent.

But the former Northern Ireland captain used all his experience from 108 caps to deal with the situation admirably - even though McGovern had rushed out of his goal.

The Northern Ireland keeper had to be alert on 67 minutes to deal with a header from Czech skipper Marek Suchy and then when Northern Ireland broke quickly through the imperious Davis, who fed Magennis with only the keeper to beat, a late flag from the referee's assistant denied a third goal.

Sub Husbauer hit Jonny Evans with a late tackle in the Northern Ireland box on 75 minutes and earned a yellow card.

Three minutes later there was retribution from Evans on Husbauer, and the Northern Ireland vice-captain picked up his side's only caution of the night.

But it mattered little as Northern Ireland, with Shane Ferguson coming on for the hard working Josh Magennis with six minutes to go, stood firm.

With second place in Group C and a likely play-off spot secured, the visit of world champions Germany is no longer going to be the biggest game at Windsor Park in 2017.

That comes in November with a play-off and the right to play for a place at the World Cup finals in Russia.

Take a bow every single player in green - you deserve it.

Northern Ireland: McGovern, Conor McLaughlin, Hughes, Jonny Evans, Brunt, Magennis (Ferguson 83), Corry Evans, Dallas (Kyle Lafferty 74), Davis, Washington (Hodson 58), Norwood.

Czech Republic: Vaclik, Suchy, Kalas, Novak (Dockal 66), Gebre Selassie, Darida,Soucek, Boril, Jankto (Husbauer 55), Krmencik, Krejci (Kliment 55).

Referee: Daniele Orsato (Italy).

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