WILLIE DUNCAN (@Willie_Duncan) runs the rule over Sunday’s World Cup qualifier in Prague as Northern Ireland meet Czech Republic.
Czech Republic v Northern Ireland | Sunday 19.45 | Sky Sports 1
As a Scot, I’m more than happy to confess that I watched Northern Ireland’s adventures at Euro 2016 with more than a hint of jealousy.
Michael O’Neill’s men may have won just one of their four matches in France this summer, but that didn’t stop the Green and White Army from having the time of their lives – nor did it stop Northern Ireland from reaching the knockout stages of the competition.
Have the boys from Belfast got a taste for tournament life now?
I’m sure that they have, but there’s no doubt that the road to Russia is a difficult one for Northern Ireland – and the first potential pothole is in Prague this weekend, when O’Neill’s charges travel to take on Czech Republic.
If you’re struggling to recall Czech Republic’s contribution to Euro 2016, you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself, for, save a stirring second-half fightback against Croatia, Pavel Vrba’s team offered precious little in France.
In fact, their role will perhaps be best remembered for a limp and lifeless 2-0 defeat against Turkey that ensured Northern Ireland of a place in the Last 16 while the Czechs checked out.
The hosts, however, are under new management and, in all fairness, they are often a fairly tough nut to crack on home soil – particularly in competitive action.
Indeed, the Czechs beat both Netherlands and Iceland in Prague on the path to Paris, while only Germany, Spain, Turkey and, somewhat randomly, Lithuania have won on Czech soil in 30 home European Championships qualifiers.
World Cup qualifying, however, seems to be a different ball game entirely for the Czechs; indeed, they have won just one of their last six World Cup qualifiers on home turf – against Malta – and that sequence of results includes a goalless draw against Northern Ireland in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup – a tournament that neither side reached.
Northern Ireland may be heartened by that, but the boys from Belfast will be most encouraged by their own impressive form, for prior to pitching up in France, Northern Ireland had gone 12 matches without defeat – a national record.
Furthermore, Northern Ireland have not lost any of their last 17 matches by a margin of greater than a goal and the visitors are certainly capable of keeping things tight in the Czech capital this weekend.
It won’t necessarily be all about backs to the wall for O’Neill’s outfit, however; Northern Ireland scored in four of their five qualifiers away from home en-route to Euro 2016 and they will hope that talismanic striker, Kyle Lafferty can rediscover his scoring touch, while Ross County’s Liam Boyce is – to borrow a well-worn phrase from this summer – on fire, having hit five goals in four league matches for his club.
Drawn alongside Germany in Group C, both of these nations are entitled to feel that they are playing for second place before a ball has even been kicked and that means that there is extra significance attached to Sunday’s showdown, for these two teams – along with Norway – are likely to be in a race to be runners-up to the World Cup holders.
Three points in Prague would add yet another glorious chapter to Northern Ireland’s recent record books and while it is bold to back the visitors at a chunky 9/2, the 23/20 (Bet365) quote offered up for the Green and White Army in the double chance market is too tempting.
Back the boys from Belfast to avoid defeat in the Czech capital in Sunday’s World Cup qualifier.
Czech Republic v Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland double chance (23/20 Bet365)