Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland can secure Russia 2018 play-off place against Czechs

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill in good mood before tonight's World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic in Belfast. Picture By: Arthur Allison

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

FORGET 15 minutes of fame, Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill would settle for even half a minute of attention from certain quarters – but his side are getting closer to the limelight again.

Asked if his charges get the acclaim they deserve for their achievements, O'Neill replied with 'a joke with a jag', commenting:

"Well, we got our customary 15 seconds on 'Football Focus', which we were delighted with, it was fabulous.

"It's not for me [to comment]. I don't write about the team, I just prepare it and get it ready… whether we get the credit or not is down to other people.

"Our focus is that for a team with resources we have – let's be honest, we're a small country - to be where we are in the rankings and in terms of qualification, I think the players deserve enormous credit.

"The biggest challenge after France was to maintain, but I think we've increased, brought it on a level – six clean sheets, where we are in the group, and the assurance in performances, even in the difficult games…"

That improvement has placed Northern Ireland in second spot in Group C, but although O'Neill said that finishing there would be "a fantastic achievement", he pointed out that "it doesn't guarantee us a place in Russia."

Indeed, it doesn't even ensure a play-off place, although a win tonight at home to the Czech Republic would almost certainly secure that two-legged shot in October.

Still, O'Neill gave a tight smile when it was suggested supporters might be in party mode this evening, anticipating progress to that next stage of the qualification process:

"Whether they turn up for a party or not, that's their decision – there've been no invitations gone out.

"We're here to play a very difficult opponent, it's not going to be a party. The mindset of the players, they're not expecting a party.

"We have to be realistic, we've nothing to celebrate just yet. We have to play a play-off game, there's a lot more football to be played, you have a responsibility to write that in such a way that you recognise that.

"If we do get second place it's a fantastic achievement - but it doesn't guarantee us a place in Russia. The players know that, I know that, hopefully all you guys know that as well." [See above, Michael].

Avoiding defeat against the Czechs won't be easy, even though they've performed poorly for most of this campaign, including goalless home draws against NI and Azerbaijan, beating only Norway and San Marino.

Having said that, their only defeats have come against Germany, whom they almost drew with last Friday night but for a brilliant 88th minute winner from Mats Hummels.

The other tricky aspect is knowing which system and which players the visitors will deploy tonight, although, as ever, O'Neill and his backroom team have done plenty of research on the opposition.

Manager Karel Jarolim made six changes to the side that started the 1-1 draw in Oslo for the team that lined out at home to the Germans, and also played five at the back in Prague.

However, O'Neill said: "We watched them against Norway, we've been at three of their games live, been at the last two live.

"We spent all [Saturday] night looking at the [Germany] game, the Norway game, looking at the options.

"Changing the system against Germany didn't surprise me…Whether they play with five or 4-2-3-1…there'll not be any surprises.

"We know the key players, we know where the threat exists, and we believe we know where their weaknesses are as well. Our players will be well-versed in whatever team or formation they'll play."

Those key Czechs include Werder Bremen attacking midfielder Vladimir Darida, who scored a superb long range equaliser against Germany, and Viktoria Plzen forward Michael Kmencik, who can lead the line or play in behind a striker, or on either side.

The Czechs have chopped and changed, O'Neill acknowledging "they've been searching in this campaign for the right formula as regards what is their strongest side, sometimes that happens when you're introducing new players."

Yet he insists: "They're very dangerous, a good side, a pot two team in terms of the draw, a team that won their [qualifying] group for Euro 2016."

It may be 'win or bust' for the Czechs, but O'Neill isn't worried about that: "Equally, the prize is much greater for us than it is for them.

"They have to win to stay alive, we have to win to guarantee second [in fact a draw will suffice].

"I'd much rather be in our situation than theirs. We know it will be very difficult but we're ready for that challenge…

"The energy in the stadium will be fabulous. Our players will respond to that, that Czechs will have to respond – and it's always difficult when you're away from home in international football…

"International football changes dramatically when there's something at stake."

They'll have to concentrate for around 5,800 seconds, but Northern Ireland should be good enough to secure second spot - and look forward to the play-offs.

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