North will stick to what they do best
Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30
Michael O'Neill will not deviate from the formula which took Northern Ireland to their first ever European Championship finals when he plots their route to a World Cup in Russia.
Two months after returning from France to a heroes' welcome, the Northern Irish return to action in the Czech Republic at the start of a qualification process for the next major international tournament in two years' time.
O'Neill's side are viewed differently on the continent following their run to the last 16 at the Euros and it was telling that new Czech coach Karel Jarolim not only spoke of their strengths but also pinpointed Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty as considerable threats.
One of the dangers Jarolim highlighted was Northern Ireland's ability to trouble teams at set-pieces, with one of their two goals in France coming from a free-kick, and O'Neill insists his team's style in this campaign will not differ from the one which has brought success.
Put to him that maybe teams were working to nullify their threat at set-pieces, O'Neill replied: "It's been something which has been said about us but I'm never going to apologise to anyone for scoring off a corner or free-kick. I see the best teams in the world score from corners and free-kicks so we will make sure that our set-pieces are of a very high standard.
"We have players that attack the ball well; we have good delivery. It's a big part of our game. If teams concede free-kicks in the defensive third and give away corners it's up to us to try and punish them. We've had that continuity with the players to further develop that.
"We were able to do specific set-piece sessions in the evenings leading into this game. We've had two sessions alone on set-pieces. The players are very focused on that.
Defensive solidity has also been present under O'Neill given his side have not conceded more than one goal in a game since November 2014.
"We're not going to score 25 goals in qualification, we have to make sure we concede as few as possible because that will give us an opportunity to pick up points in every game," O'Neill noted.
"If you look back at qualification for France, there was only one game, Romania, where we didn't take any points. That's based on a good defensive record, a good shape, a team that's very good when they're not in possession but equally a team that's capable of hurting teams as well. How we got to the Euros, we're not going to change it dramatically in terms of how we set the team up and approach every game."
He may have to alter his formation in Prague, though, as a groin injury will prevent Craig Cathcart from lining up in a three centre-back system alongside Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley.
There will be plenty of change from their opponents, who are without experienced duo Petr Cech and Tomas Rosicky.
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