Friday night provided somewhat of a tense opening 70 minutes. Northern Ireland pressed forward continuously but for much of the game it seemed that it was going to be one of “those” nights and Northern Ireland fans know all too well what “those” nights are like!
In the end a quickfire Josh Magennis double calmed the collective nerves of the GAWA and Steven Davis’ penalty put the result beyond any doubt. Michael O’Neill moved away from his much lauded three at the back set up and played out what looked on paper like a standard 4-4-2. This may have been as much of an enforced change due to defensive injuries as it was a tactical change to take advantage of the weaker San Marino.
With 3 points in the bag we now look ahead to tonight’s fixture against Czech Republic. The Czechs’ late loss to group leaders Germany means that O’Neill’s men have opened up a seven-point gap over tonight’s opponents. Thanks to Friday’s collective results Northern Ireland need only to secure a point tonight to ensure they finish the group in no lower than second place!
With Germany as formidable as ever, the aim for this campaign was always to look upon second place as the holy grail with 8 out of 9 second placed teams going through to a play off for World Cup Qualification. It is incredible to think that we are in contention for qualifying for our second consecutive major tournament for the first time in our history! An idea that would have been impossible to conceive just six years ago when Michael O’Neill was appointed.
Tonight will surely be reminiscent of that special Thursday night on 8th October 2015 when we secured qualification to UEFA Euro 2016. A glorious concoction of nerves and a party atmosphere helped lead the team to glory that night.
Northern Ireland know they will have to be much better tonight than on Friday against what will be a much tougher test in the form of Czech Republic. The away side surely had tonight’s fixture in mind on Friday when they started the match with Borek Dockal, Ladislav Krejci and Pavel Kaderabek on the bench – each of them just one booking away from a suspension.
Will Michael O’Neill stick with the 4-4-2 from Friday or go back to the three in defence with the backing of the Windsor faithful at home? With no new injury concerns Michael will have be free to pick from his full panel that were available for this international break in Northern Ireland’s bid to secure that elusive playoff spot.
Should that golden point come our way tonight all eyes will turn to the remaining fixtures across the nine groups that will determine the 8 of 9 best placed second place teams. Of course, the speculation will also turn to travel plans for our prospective playoff fixture and debates of who we want to be drawn against!
Dare To Dream… this slogan has never felt so much more relevant.