Northern Ireland v Czech Republic preview: Michael O'Neill's side near World Cup play-off berth
Last Updated: 04/09/17 8:00pm
A draw against the Czech Republic on Monday night will guarantee Northern Ireland second place in Group C, and almost certainly a play-off berth to go to the World Cup next summer, two years after making the Euro 2016 knock-out stages.
The Northern Irish have featured in three previous World Cup finals, in 1958, 1982 and 1986, but missed out on the Euros in 1984 on goal difference, so Michael O'Neill's team would be the first to make successive tournaments should they secure their passage to Russia.
It is for that reason that their boss thinks the likes of captain Steven Davis and defenders Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley must be recognised alongside the best players Northern Ireland has ever produced, such as George Best, Pat Jennings and Danny Blanchflower.
"My real satisfaction in all of this is for our players, particularly those close to 100 caps, to get the opportunity to go to a World Cup. It's phenomenal, particularly off the back of the Euros," O'Neill said.
"We'll talk about the great players and who's Northern Ireland's greatest player, but when you view players based on their international careers, you'll find some players in our squad will have international careers that will rank up with the best ever players that have played for Northern Ireland."
Optimism and expectation has only grown across the country since O'Neill guided them to France last summer after three decades without summer tournament football.
Monday's clash with the Czechs is being viewed as another night of celebration if the Northern Irish clinch second, but with the play-off picture still to be decided after that, and then negotiated in November, O'Neill sees no reason why there should be a Windsor Park party.
"We have to be realistic, we've nothing to celebrate just yet," he stressed.
"We have to play a play-off game, there's 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, the players know that and I know that."
What should be celebrated is how impressive Northern Ireland, now ranked 23rd in the world, have been since they began their campaign a year ago on Monday with a 0-0 draw in Prague.
That was one of six clean sheets in the campaign to date - only England had recorded as many after seven games - and in taking 16 points from a possible 21 they equalled the tallies of former World Cup winners France and Italy.
"We're a small country and to be where we are in the rankings and in terms of qualification, I think the players deserve enormous credit," O'Neill added.
"The biggest challenge after France was to maintain (our levels) but I think we've actually brought it on a level."
Davis will earn his 97th cap at Windsor Park on Monday night and will likely join Aaron Hughes and Jennings in the century club during the play-offs if Northern Ireland get there.
However, the Southampton midfielder is focused on a bigger prize than that personal accolade.
"If we could qualify for the World Cup that would mean more than getting 100 caps," Davis declared.
Blackburn Rovers midfielder Corry Evans may replace Kyle Lafferty for the home side after the Hearts frontman was taken off in the second period of Friday night's 3-0 win in San Marino.
Other than that, though, O'Neill is expected to stick with the same side that finished the game in Serravalle.
Northern Ireland have never beaten Czech Republic in five previous meetings (D3 L2), scoring just once in that time. All of those matches have been World Cup Qualifiers
Each of the last three fixtures between these two sides has finished 0-0; the most consecutive goalless draws Northern Ireland have had against any opponent
Northern Ireland haven't lost a competitive home match since September 2013, when they lost 4-2 to Portugal in a World Cup qualifier - they have won six and drawn two since
O'Neill has won 13 competitive matches as Northern Ireland manager, only one fewer than the previous two bosses - Nigel Worthington and Lawrie Sanchez - combined (14)
Vladimir Darida has scored three goals in his last three World Cup qualifiers for the Czech Republic
That makes Michael O'Neill's men 2/5 to land the required point which will see them secure second spot and a play-off place, although they are 500/1 to go on and win the World Cup.
Kyle Lafferty is the 5/1 favourite in the first goalscorer market, closely followed by Michal Krmencik and Jan Kliment at 11/2 apiece for the visitors.