No change in our approach vows NI boss Michael O'Neill

Northern Ireland players during a training session at the Generali Arena, Prague 
Liam Blackburn

MICHAEL O'Neill will not deviate from the formula which took Northern Ireland to their first ever European Championship finals when he plots their route to a World Cup in Russia.

Two months after returning home from France to a heroes' welcome, the Northern Irish return to action in the Czech Republic at the start of a qualification process for the next major international tournament in two years' time.

O'Neill's side are viewed differently on the continent following their run to the last 16 at the Euros and it was telling that new Czech coach Karel Jarolim not only spoke of their strengths but also pinpointed Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty as considerable threats.

One of the dangers Jarolim highlighted was Northern Ireland's ability to trouble teams at set-pieces, with one of their two goals in France coming from a free-kick, and O'Neill insists his team's style in this campaign will not differ from the one which has brought success.

Put to him that maybe teams were working to nullify their threat at set-pieces, O'Neill replied: "It's been something which has been said about us but I'm never going to apologise to anyone for scoring off a corner or free-kick. I see the best teams in the world score from corners and free-kicks so we will make sure that our set-pieces are of a very high standard.

"We have players that attack the ball well; we have good delivery. It's a big part of our game. If teams concede free-kicks in the defensive third and give away corners it's up to us to try and punish them. We've had that continuity with the players to further develop that.

"We were able to do specific set-piece sessions in the evening leading into this game. We've had two sessions alone on set-pieces. The players are very focused on that.

"We watched the best games in the world and often the game is decided off a set-piece. It would be foolhardy of us not to try and maximise those opportunities."

Defensive solidity has also been present under O'Neill given his side have not conceded more than one goal in a game since November 2014.

"We're not going to score 25 goals in qualification, we have to make sure we concede as few as possible because that will give us an opportunity to pick up points in every game," O'Neill noted.

"If you look back at qualification for France, there was only one game, Romania, where we didn't take any points. That's based on a good defensive record, a good shape, a team that's very good when they're not in possession but equally a team that's capable of hurting teams as well.

"How we got to the Euros, we're not going to change it dramatically in terms of how we set the team up and approach every game."

He may have to alter his formation in Prague, though, as a groin injury will prevent Craig Cathcart from lining up in a three centre-back system alongside Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley.

There will be plenty of change from their opponents, who are without experienced duo Petr Cech and Tomas Rosicky, and O'Neill was hoping he would get an indication into Jarolim's thinking in Wednesday's friendly win over Armenia.

And he discovered that the Czech boss likes to shuffle his pack, at a rate which may have bent the rules.

Jarolim used 22 players in the friendly and O'Neill noted: "We learned they are very clever because you're not allowed to do that, first of all.

"By FIFA and UEFA rules, you're only allowed to make six substitutions, so we were very surprised watching them to see 11 substitutions!"



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