Monday, 24 October 2016

World Cup qualifiers get serious for Northern Ireland

More fireworks at the National Stadium in 2017?
The World Cup Qualifiers are about to get serious for Michael O’Neill and his Northern Ireland team.  After taking four points from their first three games, the Ulstermen must beat Azerbaijan on November 11th at the National Stadium, if they harbour realistic hopes of reaching the finals tournament in Russia.  

Then, for 2017, four consecutive matches are scheduled, at home against Norway and the Czech Republic, and away against San Marino and Azerbaijan, that are all potentially winnable.

Earlier this month, Northern Ireland put in a spirited enough performance in Hanover, losing 2-0 to Germany, who scored both their goals early in the first half.  There’s little doubt though that the Germans will win Group C comfortably.  That leaves the Czech Republic, Norway and, potentially, in-form Azerbaijan, vying with O’Neill’s team for second place.  

Northern Ireland’s task is to win this four country ‘mini-group’ and inflict another defeat on San Marino.  Then, in October 2017, Germany will come to Belfast, where anything is possible in front of a boisterous crowd at WIndsor Park.  

So far, we’re doing as well as can be expected.  It’s a measure of Northern Ireland’s progress that a 0-0 draw away to the Czechs was greeted without much enthusiasm by supporters.
 
It was still an impressive result, undermined only by a lacklustre performance in the second half. Three late goals against San Marino, which secured a 4-0 victory, put the gloss on another rather flat display.  
I doubt a single member of the Green and White Army will complain if Northern Ireland continues to amass points without playing scintillating football.  Azerbaijan will be tough, wily opponents, whose players are schooled in the dark arts of time-wasting and play-acting.

They have a high-profile manager, the Croat Robert Prosinecki, who has organised a resolute defence.  So far in Group C, the Azeris have found the net infrequently, allowed their opponents to control possession and proved difficult to score against.  All attributes that are very familiar to Northern Ireland fans.  

Traditionally, this is exactly the type of game in which we’ve struggled.  That tradition changed during the last campaign, as Michael O’Neill built a side that defeated habitually mediocre to middling opponents, particularly in Belfast.  Hungary, Greece and Finland were all decent but unspectacular teams. Exactly the type of sides against which, previously, Northern Ireland dropped points.  

Germany excepted, the World Cup qualifying group has a similar feel.  The Czech Republic is a football nation with pedigree, currently down on its luck.  Norway has fielded several formidable, physical sides, but its latest team is not one of them.  The Azeris are improving, but they’re still underdogs against most opponents.

Finishing in second place is achievable, although, in this competition, it doesn’t necessarily secure a place in a play-off to reach the finals.  Eight out of the nine second place teams will get a play-off slot though and Michael O’Neill believes Northern Ireland can be one of them.

That means extending an impressive record at home, where we were last beaten in 2013, and scoring at least once against an Azeri side that is yet to concede a goal.  If Northern Ireland wins, the Green and White Army can go into 2017 confident that history can be made once again.

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