Football/Soccer

Kenny Archer: Northern Ireland v Czech Republic preview

A CHANGE of direction or continued steady progress? The Czechs are aiming for the former with a new man in charge, while Northern Ireland hope their manager Michael O'Neill can keep on working his magic.

Karol Jarolim, who recently turned 60, is the man tasked with lifting his nation after their disappointing Euro 2016, during which they picked up just one point.

That resulted from a spirited comeback against in-form Croatia, forcing a 2-2 draw, but, having lost their opener 1-0 to Spain, the Czechs then slumped to a 2-0 defeat to Turkey.

That result will always be remembered by those with NI affiliations, as it guaranteed their place in the last 16 in France.

The task to reach Russia for the 2018 World Cup will be much tougher, though, as only a lucky 13 European sides will be there along with the hosts – nine group winners and four more via play-offs.

The strong likelihood is that these two teams – along with Norway – are battling for one of those play-off places, given the presence of Germany in this group, with Azerbaijan and San Marino the other sides in this section. Barring a miraculous set of results, the Germans will be expected to top Group C.

Clearly this encounter will go some way towards identifying the runner-up.

For what it's worth, Northern Ireland are currently the highest ranked of those three contending sides, in 28th, with the Czechs at 34 and Norway at 50 in the world.

That's as low as the Czechs have ever been, though, in the 20-plus years of the Fifa rankings, and they will obviously be setting their sights higher, on qualification.

Czech Republic are ranked the lowest in their footballing history. Picture: Pavel Golovkin/Pa Wire.

Jarolim has re-shaped the squad, with at least five of the side that started against Turkey missing, including retirees Petr Cech, Roman Hubnik, and Jaroslav Plasil.

The new boss led Slavia Prague to back-to-back Czech titles in 2008 and 2009, and into the Champions League group stages, and has also worked in Slovakia and Saudi Arabia.

His international reign began brightly as the Czechs recorded a much-needed morale-boosting 3-0 friendly win at home to Armenia in midweek.

Perhaps the most important aspect of that result was the clean sheet, only the Czechs' second in 26 matches (the other came against Malta in late May, as part of their Euros preparation).

Given that their regular concession of goals came with the vastly experienced Cech in nets, it's clear that new boss Jarolim will be seeking much more defensive solidity.

He'd also like a regular marksman. They had 13 different scorers in their tally of 19 in Euro 2016 qualifying (including two own goals), with only Borek Dockal netting more than twice (he got four) – and he's had to pull out of this squad due to injury.

However, the visitors should be wary of the pace of striker Vaclav Kadlec and right-sided midfielder Jan Kopic, both of whom scored with clever shots from outside the box against the Armenians.

The form of the north's own top striker, Kyle Lafferty, may also be a concern. His failure to secure a transfer away from Norwich City, where he's getting no game-time, continues a disappointing year for him, including a below-par tournament in France.

On the upside, O'Neill has only lost Chris Baird to international retirement, although the even more experienced Aaron Hughes is also absent, while fellow defender Craig Cathcart is out injured.

Yet Northern Ireland's worries are not at the back. We're back to wondering where the goals will come from.

Liam Boyce is deservedly back in the squad after showing fine early season scoring form, replacing the much-sung-about but unused Will Grigg.

Lafferty and Conor Washington probably remain ahead of him in the pecking order but Northern Ireland will surely need someone to find the net in order to secure a point against the new-look Czechs.

World Cup 2018 European qualifying Group C: Czech Republic v Northern Ireland (Generali Arena, Prague, 7.45pm tomorrow)

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