Northern Ireland guaranteed themselves a second placed finish in their 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying group after victory over the Czech Republic on Monday night.
It was another memorable night at Windsor Park and another example of the outstanding job that manager Michael O’Neill has done with this Northern Irish side. He really has worked wonders since he took over as the national team manager. After eight games of qualifying, they have a higher points total than the leaders of Group A, France.
Northern Ireland are now essentially two games away from qualifying for their first World Cup in 32 years. That is because if they beat Germany in Belfast this coming October, they can top the group. That may most likely not happen, but it does not take away from the magnificent state of the senior national team at the moment.
When you contrast the way Northern Ireland went about their business compared to the Republic of Ireland against Georgia last Saturday evening, one can only think about what things might be like if we had such a shrewd operator and astute tactician like Michael O’Neill in charge of the Republic of Ireland.
The former Shamrock Rovers manager may have a limited pool of players to select from, but that does not deter them from the task at hand. Some of the players in the Northern Irish squad are playing their football in League One in England.
He only has five Premier League players to select at the moment, but he has them playing a brand of football which gets the best out of them and they look a like a side who hold little fear. Why would they, as the victory over the Czechs was a record-extending fifth victory in a row and their seventh clean sheet out of their eight FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifiers thus far.
On paper Northern Ireland may look as though they are not at as high a level as their counterparts down in the Republic, but they have consistently produced committed displays for their manager and the Irish side in Belfast one can argue are the ones who look a more fluid and organised team at the moment.
It is a great credit to the management skills of Michael O’Neill that Northern Ireland are in the position they are in and have produced the performances that they have. He plays a system of football that gets the best out of each and every single one of his players. Anyone who watched Northern Ireland’s game against the Czech Republic will have seen first hand that everyone in that team knows what they have to do when they don’t have the ball and when they are in possession of the football.
Every Northern Irish player knows their job on the ball and they also regularly make the right decisions on the ball. Their victory over the Czechs was a game plan which was executed to perfection.
That is in sheer contrast to the performance of the Republic of Ireland out in Tbilisi a few days back. All they seemed to do was just hoof the ball forward at any given opportunity. One cannot but get the feeling that if the Republic were in a situation like Northern Ireland on Tuesday, where they needed a draw to guarantee a play-off spot, it would be backs against the wall stuff for 90 minutes.
Given some of the players at the disposal to the Republic of Ireland that don’t feature as much as they should, and also in regards to the questionable style of football, the question has to be asked are we actually playing to their full potential.
Things have been good under the stewardship of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, but there is no reason why things could in fact be even better.
Make no bones about it, Northern Ireland are a very organised side under Michael O’Neill and in the world of international football in these modern times, when a team is organised it can take you a long, long way.
Michael O’Neill has done an outstanding job as the manager of Northern Ireland and it makes one wonder if we have the wrong of O’Neill in charge of the Republic of Ireland at the current moment in time.
John O’Shea, Pundit Arena
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