Northern Ireland opened their World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign with a goalless draw against Group C rivals the Czech Republic in Prague. Playing their first competitive game since their 1-0 defeat to Wales in the last-16 phase of Euro 2016, Northern Ireland relied on solid defence and breakaways throughout the game.
“We’re pleased with the point,” said Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill. “It’s a better point for us than it is for them, obviously.”
In their best scoring chance of a rather dull first half, Paddy McNair saw his low shot stopped by Czech keeper Tomas Vaclik. The Czechs never managed to put the defensive visitors under real pressure during the first 45 minutes.
Pavel Kaderabek, Milan Skoda and Vladimir Darida all sent shots wide, leaving Northern Ireland keeper Michael McGovern with little to do. “I thought first half we were very good at times, we defended well, we counter-attacked well, but… we should have done better with the final pass,” said O’Neill. “We set our team up to play that way so it was pleasing to see the players took that on board.”
Czech coach Karel Jarolim, who took over from Pavel Vrba after Euro 2016 at which the Czechs bowed out following the group phase, said he was upset with the loss of points. “But we have to raise our heads and go on,” he added.
The hosts created better chances early in the second half, but Vaclav Kadlec sent his low shot straight at McGovern after three Czechs had stormed into the visitors’ box.
Czech winger Filip Novak then squandered his team’s best chance as he blasted wide from five yards, while Ladislav Krejci and Jan Kopic both missed the target in the closing stages. “I should have scored,” Novak told the Czech Television. “I was alone and I could have asked him (McGovern) where I should place it. Unfortunately I missed.”