Northern Ireland make almost certain of World Cup playoff spot

Michael O’Neill’s team secure second spot with their 2-0 win over Czech Republic

Northern Ireland’s Jonny Evans celebrates scoring his team’s first goal. Photograph: Reuters

Northern Ireland’s Jonny Evans celebrates scoring his team’s first goal. Photograph: Reuters

 

Northern Ireland 2 Czech Republic 0

Five minutes from the end of a euphoric occasion at Windsor Park, Michael O’Neill, a man who detests the showbusiness of modern sport, finally caved in to the crowd’s demands and gave them a wave. Then he pointed to his players on the pitch and urged the applause to go in that direction.

It did. It was another instruction O’Neill got right on a night when he once again revealed himself to be a manager of the highest calibre.

Northern Ireland have guaranteed themselves second place in Group C, and an almost certain spot in November’s play-offs, with a fifth consecutive competitive victory in a group dominated by Germany.

The Czech Republic, ranked higher by Fifa than Northern Ireland and drawn from Pot 2 - Northern Ireland came from Pot 3 - needed to win and monopolised possession. But Michael McGovern made no serious saves in a game in which Jonny Evans was outstanding at centre-half.

Adding to that defensive contribution, Evans scored the opening goal in the 28th minute. It was only his second ever at international level - his first was in 2009 - and his West Bromwich Albion clubmate, Chris Brunt, then bent in a superb free-kick 13 minutes later. It was Brunt’s third international goal.

The red sky overhead on Monday night at Windsor Park. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
The red sky overhead on Monday night at Windsor Park. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Those were two of the three Premier League players available to O’Neill - captain Steven Davis was the other. Five of the rest of the team came from the Championship, two from League One and one, Aaron Hughes, plays infrequently for Hearts in Scotland and is now 37. McGovern is yet to start a Championship match for Norwich City this season.

For that reason this immense display was arguably as impressive an achievement as Northern Ireland winning their group to reach Euro 2016 or victory over Ukraine in Lyon at the finals.

O’Neill expressed his delight and pride afterwards and mentioned “chemistry”, “patience” and “intelligence” among other qualities his team had shown once again. He could have added “discipline” to that list because that is what Northern Ireland had tactically and the Czechs could do nothing to disrupt it.

As O’Neill said, this was a fourth home win in the group and all four have been clean sheets. In fact, only the Germans have scored against the Irish in eight qualifiers. Northern Ireland’s over-achieving has become a national characteristic.

Yet the talent pool available to O’Neill meant that even though the Irish had worked themselves into a promising position in the group, there was still some wariness about what an early Czech goal might do.

That it never materialised says so much about the organisation and commitment O’Neill has imposed - the game management he spoke of on Sunday.

It was the Irish who produced the first chance - a Josh Magennis header on three minutes - and while the visitors then set about passing their way into the Irish half, there were few scares.

It made for a balanced contest; then Brunt broke away down the left, fired a cross to Magennis on the right and earned a corner. It was fast and direct but it was also skilful.

Brunt delivered the corner with his trademark whip. It was cleared but only as far as Oliver Norwood. The Fulham midfielder headed it back into the Czech box, where Evans had waited, lurking like a striker.

Onside, unmarked, he won a challenge with the exposed keeper, Tomas Vaclik, and flicked a backwards header into the net.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill celebrates with Steve Davis after the final whistle. Photograph: Getty Images
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill celebrates with Steve Davis after the final whistle. Photograph: Getty Images

Windsor Park started rocking, Evans’ value rose another few million and the visitors needed two goals to even begin dislodging O’Neill’s team from second place.

It felt like the Czechs had to strike quickly and indeed they went on the attack again. But again they were met by stern Irish defence and 13 minutes after Evans’ goal, his younger brother Corry broke away from one such foray.

Seizing the ball on the edge of the home ‘D’, Evans strode coolly fully 60 yards before nutmegging Filip Novak around 20 yards from the Czech net.

Evans junior was brought down, which meant a free-kick. It was in Brunt territory. The visitors presumably had done their homework on Brunt’s left foot, but knowing about its accuracy and doing something about it are two different things. Vaclik was at full stretch as he saw the speeding ball bend around the wall and into the bottom corner. “I’m not sure if there’s a better left foot in the English game,” O’Neill said of Brunt.

If the stadium was noisy before, now it was electric. They were singing: “The Germans don’t believe us, we’re gonna win the group.”

The second half was a repeat of the first - without goals. The Czechs petered out and Northern Ireland maintained their shape and composure. They never stopped working.

It was so good even Michael O’Neill waved to the fans.

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