Defence key as Northern Ireland stand on verge of playoffs
A point against the Czech Republic would guarantee second place in pool
Michael O’Neill’s decision to switch Josh Magennis to the centre paid off with two goals against San Marino last Friday. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA Wire
In October of last year Sami Khedira made it 2-0 to Germany against Northern Ireland in the 17th minute in Hanover. The significance of the goal at the time was that it cemented Germany’s control of the game and, ultimately, their victory. The significance 11 months on is that it is the last goal Northern Ireland have conceded in World Cup qualification.
Michael O’Neill’s team have played four qualifiers since Hanover and won them all with clean sheets. In total they have played seven matches in the group and kept six clean sheets. It is a striking demonstration of O’Neill’s defensive organisation and one more blank on Monday night in Belfast against the Czech Republic and his team will be guaranteed second place in group.
It would represent another milestone in O’Neill’s transformation of a side for whom losing, or not winning, had almost become a custom.
One point would not yet ensure a place in November’s playoffs but it would be another step forward. It would also mean that Northern Ireland – drawn from Pot 3 – had hurdled the Czechs – drawn from Pot 2.
It was from Pot 5 that the Irish won their group in qualifying for Euro 2016 in France and with the core personnel the same, that experience bolsters the squad’s knowledge about how to handle occasions like this and get over the line.
“One thing we’ve done is manage the games well,” O’Neill said in Belfast on Sunday.
He recalled that Windsor Park was full of similar anticipation when Hungary visited in September 2015. All the Irish needed then was one more win but they were one down and reduced to 10 men when Kyle Lafferty scored a 90th-minute equaliser. That enabled the Irish to fight another day and they qualified the next month, beating Greece in style.
That was a display of patience and there was another on Friday night against San Marino. Drawing 0-0 and finding it a struggle to break down a packed defence on a lumpy pitch, the Irish did not panic.
O’Neill then once again revealed his managerial decisiveness by removing the labouring Lafferty from the number 9 position after an hour, switching Josh Magennis from the flank to the centre and bringing on Shane Ferguson.
Lafferty had that talismanic role in the Euro qualifiers, and was visibly annoyed to be taken off; but O’Neill is no sentimentalist, he had shown that by dropping Lafferty for the second game of last summer’s finals.
Then Northern Ireland defeated Ukraine without Lafferty and now Magennis put Northern Ireland 1-0 up against San Marino. The switch had worked again. Magennis quickly made it 2-0 and Steven Davis steered in a calm penalty. It was not pretty but it was a 3-0 away win.
And it leaves Northern Ireland in this hugely promising situation. But there is a wariness too – the Czechs lost narrowly to Germany on Friday and rested three players with tonight in mind. They must win and will attack a defence missing Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart, two of the handful of Premier League players O’Neill has at his disposal.
O’Neill stressed that “we’ve defended very well as a team – in France we had to play with a defensive mindset and counter-attack,” and that team ethic will again be vital.
It got them through the opening qualifier – a 0-0 draw in Prague – and it has seen them through to the stage where the always impressive captain, Davis can say: “We’d have bit your hand off for this position. Hopefully it’ll be another special night with another electric atmosphere. Hopefully we’re on the cusp.”