Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland aiming to seal second spot against Czech Republic

Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis is closing in on 100 caps - and hoping to play at next year's World Cup. Picture By: Arthur Allison.

World Cup 2018 European qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland v Czech Republic (tonight, Windsor Park, Sky Sports Football)

STEVEN Davis is close to becoming a centurion but he has always soldiered on for collective gain rather than personal plaudits.

Barring injuries and a complete downturn in team form, the Northern Ireland captain should reach 100 caps in the first leg of a play-off for Russia 2018.

Yet the skipper insists: "If we could go and qualify for the World Cup that would mean more than getting 100 caps."

Now on 96 appearances, the Southampton midfielder says: "I've got a lot of caps, and I'm not too far away from the 100 but it's not something that is playing on my mind. I'm just concentrating on the games and enjoying my football.

"We're in a very good place…it's a good group to be a part of. If we continue to have success and keep growing then we can go on to achieve a lot."

Avoiding defeat tonight, at home to the Czechs, would ensure at least second spot in Group C, although World Cup-holders Germany are almost certain to top it.

So second spot is the first priority; the next step, if Northern Ireland don't slip up tonight, is to ensure a play-off place.

Eight of the nine runners-up will make that stage, so the chances are very good, but a win this evening would be a big leap towards the play-offs in mid-November.

The remaining fixtures will be tough, though, at home to Germany and away to Norway, so a win for the Czechs would keep their hopes of the runners-up spot very much alive.

Indeed although Northern Ireland appear in a very healthy position, manager Michael O'Neill urged some notes of caution:

"We didn't expect to have a seven-point gap between ourselves and the Czech Republic but sometimes fixtures give you a little bit of an advantage at times – the Czech Republic still have to play San Marino, we have three tough games to finish, so it can be a little bit deceiving at times.

"But the best thing I've learned in my time in international football is have the points in the bank as early as possible.

"It's much more difficult to try to make the ground up than it is to be out in front.

"We're delighted with the position we're in. We know the Czech Republic are capable of winning their last three games… It's our job to make sure that we can certainly put this to bed [tonight]."

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