'The Laundrymen' of Northern Ireland clean up again and seal second
GROUP leaders Germany are supposed to be the experts in economy and efficiency but Northern Ireland showed they can convert half-chances into the priceless prize of a play-off place for next year’s World Cup.
The Green and White Army will be wondering what currency they will need in November, and spending the next five weeks indulging in speculation about who their opponents will be after yet another assured performance and victory.
Defence has been the strong point for Michael O’Neill’s men in this campaign, but defenders showed their added value with the goals coming from Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt.
Two West Bromwich Albion players – with certain bigger English clubs surely kicking themselves that they didn’t push harder to sign Evans during the transfer window – and Northern Ireland are the international equivalent of the Hawthorns side.
Strong at the back, dangerous from dead balls, with lively midfielders able to create openings, and goalscorers all over the pitch.
The men at the back – and everyone in front of them – still had plenty of work too, with the Czechs enjoying lots of possession, but they never seriously troubled goalkeeper Michael McGovern.
As so often, Michael O’Neill got his selection and tactics right. To no one’s surprise except, perhaps, his own, Kyle Lafferty was dropped, with Corry Evans coming into midfield.
That led to a formation change, Conor Washington now a lone striker, with Josh Magennis, skipper Steven Davis, and Stuart Dallas behind him, although the younger Evans had licence to get forward.
The Czechs set up as a 3-4-3, with their wing-backs high up the pitch, and for most of the opening half hour the hosts seemed content to sit back and hold on to the point they had from a goalless draw, allowing their opponents to pass the ball around and probe at their rearguard.
However, those were clearly ‘rope-a-dope’ tactics. The knockout blows then came via the wonderful left foot of Brunt. First, in the 28th minute, a whipped corner was headed clear, or at least out of the penalty area, but it was cleverly returned towards goal by Olly Norwood and Jonny Evans beat the keeper to loop a header into the net.
Then, when Corry Evans broke clear to win a free kick outside the Czech ‘D’ after 40 minutes, the outcome was almost inevitable. Brunt swung the ball past the wall with nonchalant ease and into the bottom corner.
Manager O’Neill may have declared in his pre-match press conference that no invitations had been issued to a party, but the atmosphere was one of enjoyment from that point onwards.
Czech boss Karel Jarolim changed both his wide attackers 10 minutes into the second half, then sent on an attacker for one of his defensive trio, but all to no avail.
The final quarter of this game was about Czech pressure and Northern Irish counter-attacks, but there was never any real sense of worry that the visitors would score.
The Czechs swung in a series of crosses, but that was meat and drink to the men in green, with Norwood notable for being in the right place to tackle and clear time after time.
Perhaps a new nickname is required after seven clean sheets in eight qualifiers – ‘the Laundrymen’?
After the first goal, a chant rang out that ‘We’re going to win the group’.
After the second goal some of the supporters even started to believe that.
With second spot secured, topping the group remains possible, with Germany to visit next month before a trip to Norway, but it’s highly unlikely. The real wonder of this result is that the realistic target has been reached, with a place in the playoffs almost certainly secure.
Northern Ireland have never qualified for consecutive tournaments before, but then they’d never beaten the Czechs before this match in five previous attempts.
Given their defensive record –with only Germany having scored against them in this campaign – their threat from set pieces, and their loud support, the men in green can look forward to that prospect with quiet confidence.
Northern Ireland: McGovern; C McLaughlin, Hughes, J Evans, Brunt; C Evans, Norwood; Magennis (Ferguson, 84), Davis (capt.), Dallas (K Lafferty, 74); Washington (Hodson, 58).
Czech Republic: Vaclik; Suchy, Kalas, Novak (Dockal, 66); Gebre Selassie, Darida, Soucek, Boril; Krejci (Kliment, 55), Krmencik, Jankto (Husbauer, 55).
Referee: Daniele Orsato (Italy).