NI v Czech Republic


So here we go again! It doesn’t seem like only two years ago that I was writing for the programme about our chances of qualification to the European Championship finals.

And now in a strange piece of déjà vu we are facing three more crucial autumn matches which could mean that we are destined for a World Cup qualification play-off in November. Our measured, composed and professional performance against San Marino on Friday night, coupled with Germany’s win against the Czechs the same night, means we require a draw against Czech Republic to guarantee the runners-up spot in the group. It appears it might even be good enough to cement a play-off slot - but we can’t say for sure yet as that still depends on results in the remaining games in other groups. What we can control right now is our own performance tonight – and I am confident the players can take care of business. This match against the Czechs is essentially the first of three games where we have an opportunity to claim that coveted second place behind the world champions. The Czechs have to win all of their remaining fixtures to have any chance of grabbing runners-up spot in Group C, while we have three opportunities, starting tonight, to grab the point we need. The Czechs rested some players for the Germany fixture, apparently with this game in mind, so we will have to be on our guard. It was tough against them last autumn and I know they will provide strong opposition again. Naturally, there is pressure on us to get a result tonight but I have no doubt the team will handle it well. I think our experiences during the Euro 2016 campaign, where we rose to the occasion when we had big prizes to play for, will hold us in good stead. We have, through our consistent performances and results in the group, brought ourselves to the brink

of what would be another remarkable achievement, and I have to say as coach that this group of players certainly deserve their success. Over all of my time as manager of Northern Ireland I have been amazed and delighted at the application, determination and ability of this group of players. In Steven Davis and Jonny Evans we have two fine leaders who provide the backbone of our squad, not only on the pitch but off it. They have provided the rock around which others such as Conor Washington and Conor McLaughlin have flourished and developed. I know that tonight will once again be extremely challenging. The Czechs have a lot to play for, and as long as there is a chance I know they will be giving their all, but I also know that my team will also be striving to find the elusive point/s to assure us of play-off qualification. It should be an exciting night. I also know that regardless of the result we will have your undying support. The Green and White Army continue to provide remarkable encouragement for us everywhere we go – not only in Belfast but in Prague, Hannover, San Marino and Baku, and no doubt in Oslo, and if we make the qualification play-off wherever that match will be played. There is nothing better than seeing the fans in their colourful outfits and in full voice to lift the team. The support was wonderful in Serravalle on Friday night. We all salute you for your support and I trust that the team will repay it with positive performances and results. So here we go! I for one can’t wait. Michael O’Neill Northern Ireland Manager


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