Football/Soccer

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland march towards World Cup play-off spot after victory over Czech Republic

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill celebrates with Steven Davis after the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying, Group C match at Windsor Park, Belfast 

NORTHERN Ireland could be on their way to consecutive major finals after last night’s 2-0 win over World Cup qualifier opponents Czech Republic.

At Windsor Park last night, Michael O’Neill’s men virtually nailed down the play-off spot in Group C with first-half goals coming from Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt.

However, Brunt wasn’t taking a World Cup play-off berth for granted even though it would take a dramatic series of results in other groups to deny them second spot behind Germany.

“I suppose you don’t know until it’s confirmed,” said the WBA player. “We can only do our job. We’d a job to do tonight and we’ve done that so it sets us up for the next couple of games.”

Michael O'Neill said teams would want to avoid Northern Ireland in the play-offs.

"The fear is getting to the play-offs and not getting through it, the opposition will be what it will will be," he said.

"Hopefully the draw - if and when we're in that position - will be somewhat kind to us. It's very difficult, who would you want in that scenario?

"Probably teams would say they wouldn't have minded playing Northern Ireland, but if they look at us over this campaign they'll probably say, actually no, we'd rather avoid Northern Ireland.

"(The win) has given us 19 points which when we go into the pot of second-placed teams, we've got 13 at the moment (as results against the bottom team are discounted). I look back at the qualification for Brazil (in 2014) and 13 was enough, Denmark missed out with 10.

"We'll just have to wait and see, hopefully between now and game 10 there's a load of other draws in every other group and 13 is more than enough!"

O'Neill also heaped praise on defender Jonny Evans.

"Jonny's been brilliant this week," the manager said.

"He's had a lot on his plate but he deals with it so well and his performances in both of the games were fantastic.

"The Czechs are physical and they had a lot of movement in front of them, you need a player with top-class game intelligence to deal with that, and that's something that Jonny has in abundance. He's great at organising the players around him.

"We have played eight games and had seven clean sheets, Jonny Evans has played in all eight games, I don't think that's a coincidence. I think whoever plays beside Jonny almost becomes a better player for it. I thought he was immense."

His club colleague Brunt, who missed Euro 2016 with a knee injury, was also singled out for praise after he dispatched a 25-yard free-kick to double Northern Ireland's advantage four minutes before the break.

"I'm not sure if there is a better left foot in the English game," O'Neill said of Brunt.

"His delivery from set-pieces is phenomenal. Chris was a huge loss for us in France."

Exactly one year on from a 0-0 draw between the two countries in Prague, the Czechs needed to win to stay alive and boss Karel Jarolim saw his team's hopes dashed by two goals from set-pieces.

"I am disappointed because we knew that the Northern Ireland team is very strong in this situation," he said.

"Both of the goals are easy so it destroyed all our plans and that's why I'm very disappointed.

"It was hard but all the time I was hoping we'd score one goal and I thought the game might be different but we didn't have any chances and then it's quite difficult to score a goal."

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