By Macdara Ferris in Windsor Park
Northern Ireland’s ambition of qualifying for back-to-back major tournaments for the very first time is still very much on track after their 2-0 win over Norway in Belfast on Sunday (see here for match report).
In their Russia 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, Michael O’Neill’s men now sit in second place with ten points, and are currently in the playoff spot.
Speaking after Sunday’s win at Windsor Park, O’Neill reflected on how well his team is placed as qualifying reaches the half way point.
"We're in a great position," said O'Neill. "We took care of the job tonight. We've given ourselves a substantial cushion over Norway.”
His team sit five points behind world champions Germany, who top the table, but are two clear of the Czech Republic and three clear of Azerbaijan.
“We play Azerbaijan now and we can put the distance between ourselves and them to six points and then it starts to look very much like ourselves, the Czech Republic and Germany.
"Once you get to ten points you start to look at the fixtures that are ahead and start to think of what you may need and we're in that position now. We know we need to go and take care of the fixtures ahead. We have a difficult game in Baku, but one we couldn't go into it in better shape.
"We looked assured in how we played tonight. We looked like we knew we would see the game out. We've kept four clean sheets in five games, we've scored ten goals here at home. They are all statistics we should be proud of and the fact that Germany are the only team to score against us. All those things build confidence."
O’Neill was full of praise for his team’s display – from the disciplined three-man-defensive line to the offense who got the crucial goals.
“The performance was fantastic and we played some great football. We had to deal with so many balls coming directly into the box. Their first throw in showed everything was going to come in.
“We are very strong in the three – Craig (Cathcart), Gareth (McAuley) and Johnny (Evans) – you don’t look like conceding.
“We managed the game very well, particularly in the second half. We were controlled in our play. We didn’t leave ourselves exposed and yet we still carried a threat in terms of opportunities that we had ourselves.”
The game was just two minutes old when Northern Ireland took the lead with an excellently taken goal by Jamie Ward. Conor Washington then doubled their advantage just after the half an hour mark.
Extratime.ie asked the former Shamrock Rovers manager how satisfying was it to see his attackers scoring in first half.
"I’m delighted,” said O’Neill. “Conor (Washington) has had a tricky enough time in the early part of the season where he's not played a lot (at QPR) and Jamie had to go on loan to Burton and he's back at (Nottingham) Forest, but for us they're both very good players.
“They both give you that energy. Conor has a physical presence as well. Jamie pops up everywhere showing great sharpness and touch. They complemented each other very well. The two boys did great in that system and they both scored. You can’t ask for any more.”
Northern Ireland will have a summer training camp ahead of the next match in June, similar to the process used for last year’s European Championship.
“It is tricky,” said O’Neill about the timing of the next game, which takes a significant time after the end of the club season. “We have plans for an overseas training camp and then a UK-based training camp.”
With O’Neill’s first match in charge coming against the same opposition in Windsor Park five years, this fixture provided a benchmark as to how his team has progressed. Albeit it was a friendly game back in 2012, O’Neill acknowledged the journey his team has made.
“That first game showed us how far we needed to come as a team. We are in a much better placed now and that is testament to the players. It seems a long time ago. There was pain in the first 18 months but we stuck with it – the players stuck with it – [and] we are where we are now.”
For his opposite number, it was a painful managerial debut on Sunday for new Norway boss Lars Lagerback. He acknowledged his side has now no realistic chance of qualifying after the defeat and he gave due respect to Northern Ireland.
“It wasn't a good performance by us,” said Lagerback in the post-match press conference. “We weren't good enough, it's as simple as that. In the first half we were too passive and Northern Ireland could control the game. They are a very well organised team.
“Ever since I started to look at them at the Euros, they've done a great job. They are calm, confident and physically very strong. I was impressed with the defensive side of the game. They have shown they are difficult to beat.”
Macdara Ferris is a contributor since 2007 to Hoops Scene (Shamrock Rovers' match day programme) and the co-author of Tallaght Time: Shamrock Rovers 2009 to 2012. He still believes that one day he will see Rovers win the FAI Cup. The first international game he attended was Luxembourg being dispatched 2-1 at Lansdowne Road by Jack Charlton's Ireland team.
He has been a writer with extratime.ie since 2012 covering the League of Ireland, the Irish National team and a few Champions League finals. He has also been known to pop up in far flung places like Ballybofey, Belfast, Berlin and Brazil to report for extratime.
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