Not for the first time, Northern Ireland struck late in a crucial qualifier far from home to snatch all three points. This time it was Stuart Dallas’ 93rd minute winner in Azerbaijan which secured victory, with a late flurry reminiscent of the last-gasp turnaround to win 2-1 in Hungary during that crucial Euro 2016 qualifier.
And on the back of victory in Baku, we’re backing Michael O’Neill’s men to make it to World Cup 2018. That’s because…
They’re so solid
The stats speak for themselves on this one. Norn Iron have only conceded 10 times in 16 games since the start of Euro 2016 qualifying.
Even more impressively, they’ve managed five clean sheets in their six WCQ games so far – with the two goals they conceded away to Germany the only blot on their otherwise immaculate copybook.
While a clean sheet in Baku is commendable given the fact it’s a 5,000+ mile round trip, managing a shut-out away to a talented Czech Republic side really shows their mettle. And with O’Neill’s men so hard to net against, you’d have to fancy them if – as looks likely – they end up in a play-off after the group stage.
Well-balanced attack doing the business
As good as Northern Ireland were during Euro 2016 qualifying, they were too over-reliant on Kyle Lafferty. The Enniskillen native netted seven of their 16 goals, and created several more. But while he’s remained a key man this time around, the 29-year-old is now part of a strong attacking unit.
Among his cohorts are the pacy, tricky Conor Washington, creative Dallas, Jamie Ward – far more clinical for country than club of late – and the experienced and wily Niall McGinn.
Add to that the set-piece threat offered by players like Conor McLaughlin and the evergreen Gareth McAuley, and they prove a very tricky side to keep quiet. Six different players have found the net in their first six WCQ games. Expect that number to grow when they head to San Marino next time out.
O’Neill and co. have done it before
It was a brave new world for Northern Ireland’s squad en route to Euro 2016, as the Green and White Army headed to a major tournament for the first time since 1986.
But having gained that experience of winning high-pressure games to reach a tournament under their belt, the manager – and squad – will know exactly how to handle the games to come.
That crop of players – many of whom are in the current squad – proved they have the mettle for big games, chalking up crucial results against the likes of Greece and Hungary en route to the finals.
There’s little doubt now that they’ll hang onto that four-point gap over Czech Republic to secure second spot, and head for a play-off in fine form and with the knowledge of exactly what’s needed to get the job done.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing