Friday 9 December 2016

5 things we learned from Northern Ireland's goalless draw in the Czech Republic

Published 05/09/2016 | 14:21

Kyle Lafferty, right, lasted less than an hour in Prague
Kyle Lafferty, right, lasted less than an hour in Prague

Northern Ireland kicked off their World Cup qualification campaign on Sunday with a precious point in Prague following a 0-0 draw with the Czech Republic.

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Here, Press Association Sport looks at five things we learned from the stalemate at the Generali Arena.

ANOTHER CASE FOR THE DEFENCE

Northern Ireland's route to the Euros in France this summer was built on solid defensive foundations and any possible path to Russia will use similar building blocks. Jonny Evans and co picked up a fifth clean sheet in eight games, even without the injured Craig Cathcart and with full-backs Conor McLaughlin and Shane Ferguson used in a retooled formation.

It is now almost exactly two years since the Northern Irish conceded more than once in a game and that stinginess will stand them in good stead this time around.

MATCH SHARPNESS WAS MISSING

One of Michael O'Neill's biggest gripes was the lack of playing time some of his players have got this season with their clubs. In particular, Kyle Lafferty, who continues to be marginalised by Norwich, looked off the pace and a shadow of the striker that scored seven times in qualification for Euro 2016.

O'Neill stressed he wants the issues surrounding his fringe players at club level resolved before the next meet-up in October but, with the loan window now abolished, how sharp will the likes of Lafferty and QPR's Conor Washington be?

THERE ARE GREATER EXPECTATIONS NOW

There was a time when a 0-0 draw in the Czech Republic would have been celebrated with great vigour. This is a team that went 12 games unbeaten recently, though, and their success has raised the bar in terms of what can believably be achieved.

That will be even more evident in other fixtures in this group, when O'Neill's side will be considered clear favourites in clashes against San Marino and Azerbaijan.

CONOR McLAUGHLIN CAN BE A KEY MAN AGAIN

While many in the Northern Irish set-up had reason to smile after France, full-back McLaughlin would have viewed events in June from a glummer perspective. An impressive tournament may have led to a move to a bigger club but the Fleetwood defender merely passed by the shop window.

Having been left out since the opening loss to Poland in Nice, McLaughlin was restored to the starting XI and a series of key blocks saw him earn praise from O'Neill, who was given plenty of evidence he can trust his undervalued full-back.

THE CZECHS WERE UNDERWHELMING

Twenty years since they reached the final of Euro 1996, the Czech Republic may be waiting a while for a return to their golden period. Where once there was Pavel Nedved, Petr Cech and Tomas Rosicky on their team-sheets, now there are barely any recognisable names and their best player, Filip Novak, missed an opportunity fit for a compilation of comedy misses.

Their public are hardly inspired either. Only 10,000 turned up to watch Karel Jarolim's first competitive game in charge and the likes of Norway and Azerbaijan should visit Prague later on in the group with little to fear.

Press Association

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