Michael O'Neill urges Northern Ireland to build on Euro 2016 success

Michael O'Neill felt his Northern Ireland side deserved to progress

Michael O'Neill is hoping the progress made by Northern Ireland during their Euro 2016 campaign will prove to be a springboard towards qualifying for the World Cup finals in two years' time.

Northern Ireland face a difficult opener on Sunday, when they begin their Group C qualifiers against the Czech Republic in Prague.

But O'Neill views the match as a chance to illustrate just how far they have come in recent years, having reached the knockout stages of Euro 2016 in France during the summer.

The manager said: "It's another opportunity for this team to go and show what they are capable of.

"They did that in qualification for the Euros and they did that in the tournament as well. They are in a good place.

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"Those experiences can only help us. We are in a very difficult group with the world champions."

During the recent Euros - their first tournament finals for 30 years - they survived the group matches before losing to eventual semi-finalists Wales in the last 16.

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Drawn in Group C for World Cup qualification, alongside Germany, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino, O'Neill knows he will be fully tested.

He added: "Only the group winners are guaranteed qualification. We have to try and get as many points on the board as early as we can.

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"This is a tough game away here in Prague but it is a game we can take something from. We saw the benefit of winning the first game against Hungary in the previous campaign.

"The players are well aware of that. They are well prepared for that but equally we fully acknowledge the size of the task ahead."

Czech coach Karel Jarolim believes the Irish visitors to the Generali Arena are strong with set-pieces to which O'Neill added: "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 and 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 watched the best games in the world and often the game is decided off a set-piece. It would be foolhardy of us not to try and maximise those opportunities."

And he also stressed that having a strong defence remains key to their hopes of qualifying for the Finals in Russia in 2018: "We're not going to score 25 goals in qualification, so we have to make sure we concede as few as possible.

"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."

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