Michael O'Neill: Teams will want to avoid Northern Ireland in World Cup play-off

Northern Ireland have all but confirmed they will have a play-off to get to the World Cup next summer and boss Michael O'Neill reckons nobody will want to meet his side in November.

A 2-0 victory over Czech Republic in Belfast was delivered thanks to first-half goals from West Brom's Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt, with three points enough to guarantee second spot in Group C and virtually assure them of one of the eight play-off spots that are available.

The likes of Portugal or Italy could be their opponents then - though it is possible the in-form Northern Irish may even be seeded having won five successive games - and O'Neill believes his team will be one everyone is keen to avoid having taken 19 points from a possible 24 and kept seven clean sheets, more than any other European nation.

Steve Davis of Northern Ireland and manager Michael O'Neill celebrate at Windsor Park. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

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

It was Evans' first international goal in eight-and-a-half years that put the home side in front at Windsor Park as he flicked home a header from a semi-cleared corner in the 28th minute.

That was the highlight of an imperious performance from the 29-year-old defender that showed why Manchester City and Arsenal were keen to sign him before last week's deadline arrived and Evans remained West Brom's captain.

"Jonny's been brilliant this week," O'Neill added.

"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."

O'Neill had praise too for Evans' club colleague Brunt after he dispatched a free-kick from 25 yards out into the Czech net just prior to the interval.

Brunt, 32, was the only player in the home side's XI that did not play at the Euros in France last summer due to a knee injury.

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

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


 

Most Read in Sport