Monday 23 April 2018

'Nothing to celebrate yet' - O'Neill

O'Neill: "If we do get second place it’s a fantastic achievement, but it doesn’t guarantee us a place in Russia." Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

James Ducker

The temptation for Northern Ireland supporters is to believe the hard work is done, but Michael O'Neill will not subscribe to that theory and he certainly does not expect his players to do so either.

A point against the Czech Republic at Windsor Park tonight will guarantee the Northern Irish second place in their World Cup qualifying group and, in all probability, a play-off place, but O'Neill was keen to sound a note of caution.

"Whether the fans turn up for a party or not is their decision, there's been no invitations," the manager said.

"It's not going to be a party, the players aren't expecting a party, we've nothing to celebrate just yet. We would have to play a play-off game so there is a lot more football to be played. If we do get second place it's a fantastic achievement, but it doesn't guarantee us a place in Russia."

Northern Ireland are not in new territory here, though. Reaching last summer's Euros has imbued this squad with tremendous self-belief, even if the Czechs are likely to provide stiffer opposition than Greece did in the decisive qualifying game for France 2016.

The previous three meetings have ended goalless, including their last in Prague 12 months ago, and O'Neill would no doubt gladly settle for a fourth, not least as he is missing two of his Premier League centre-halves through injury.

West Brom's Gareth McAuley has a thigh problem, while Watford's Craig Cathcart requires knee surgery.

It will place a huge onus on Jonny Evans to lead a defence that has kept six clean sheets in seven matches, and ensure another call-up for 37-year-old Aaron Hughes, who now plays for Hearts. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Northern Ireland (probable; 4-3-3): McGovern; McLaughlin, Hughes, J Evans, Brunt; C Evans, Norwood, Davis; Magennis, Washington, Dallas.

Northern Ireland v Czech Republic Live, Sky Sports Mix, 7.45

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