5 things we learned from Northern Ireland's victory over Czech Republic
A November play-off to reach the 2018 World Cup finals is on the horizon for Northern Ireland after they guaranteed a second-place finish in their qualifying group by defeating Czech Republic.
Two goals in 13 first-half minutes from West Brom duo Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt secured at least a runners-up berth in Group C, and eight of those nine second-placed teams will advance to the play-offs in the autumn.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at what we learned from another impressive Windsor Park display.
NOBODY WILL FANCY THE NORTHERN IRISH IN THE PLAY-OFFS
Having won a national record five games in a row and kept seven clean sheets in eight qualifiers, it is easy to see why Michael O'Neill thinks other countries will be keen to avoid his side in any potential play-off encounters. Over two legs this resolute and organised unit will give little away and with their dead-ball expertise they always carry a threat going forward, as the Czechs discovered to their cost.
MANCHESTER CITY AND OTHERS WILL REGRET NOT SIGNING EVANS
Last week's transfer deadline passed with Evans remaining a West Brom player as they rejected offers from Manchester City and Leicester for a centre-back Arsenal were also thought to be keen on. At 29, Evans, who spent nine years at Manchester United, may be playing the best football of his career and in an era when elite defenders are in short supply, numerous top clubs will rue not pursuing him earlier and harder this summer. After this display, City in particular will be kicking themselves, especially if the injury-prone Vincent Kompany breaks down soon.
AARON HUGHES IS EVERGREEN
Next month marks the 20th anniversary of Hughes, then 17, being called up to the senior international side for the first time. In the absence of injured pair Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart, he won his 108th cap on Monday evening and was part of a tremendous defensive performance that limited the Czechs to few opportunities, despite their 72 per cent possession. Brunt compared Hughes to the age-defying 'Benjamin Button' following the game and you can see why.
MICHAEL O'NEILL IS A MIRACLE WORKER
Northern Ireland's manager has a limited pool of players to pick from and only five come from English football's top flight. Two of those - McAuley and Cathcart - were missing but this was another performance indicative of an outfit that is greater than the sum of its parts. Four of the starting XI - Conor McLaughlin, Corry Evans, Josh Magennis and Conor Washington - play or have played in League One since January 2016 and O'Neill, whose team last lost a home qualifier four years ago, continues to do a job that is worthy of wider recognition across the water.
NOTHING TO LOSE NOW WHEN THE GERMANS COME TO TOWN
Spare a thought for Joachim Low's side. They have won eight out of eight qualifiers, scored 35 and conceded twice, yet the world champions are still not assured of a place in Russia to defend their title because Northern Ireland can still mathematically overhaul them. They will likely not spend too long dreaming about such a possibility, but their haul of 19 points will surely be good enough already for that play-off, meaning the pressure is off in their final two qualifiers against Germany and Norway.
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