Northern Ireland made a solid start to 2018 World Cup qualifying with a goalless draw at the Czech Republic in their Group C opener.
The away side held their own in a scrappy encounter in Prague, surviving a second-half onslaught where Filip Novak missed the hosts’ best opportunity.
There was much fanfare when Michael O’Neill’s side qualified for Euro 2016 and then progressed through the group stages, but Northern Ireland have not played at a World Cup finals for 30 years.
While they should again have their work cut out in this campaign – having been drawn alongside world champions Germany – this was a good night’s work for O’Neill’s men.
This was Karel Jarolim’s first competitive match in charge of the Czech Republic, while a number of retirements, including Petr Cech’s, made this a very different team to the one that played at the Euros.
Despite the changes, though, this will feel like a much better point for Northern Ireland, who next face San Marino at home while their opponents head to Hamburg.
The hosts could have been in front within four minutes when Pavel Kaderabek bundled over the crossbar at the back post from Novak’s cross.
Though Milan Skoda poked wide shortly afterwards, the next real chance fell Northern Ireland’s way just before the half-hour mark.
Paddy McNair, one of three changes from the last-16 defeat against Wales in France, carried the ball from deep into an ocean of space, finally shooting low and hard, left-footed, but straight at Tomas Vaclik, who pushed clear.
While the Czech Republic retained the upper hand in terms of possession, the visitors’ speed on the counter was a constant threat, even if the final ball was too often lacking.
However, in the first action of the second half, it was the Czechs who broke, with Shane Ferguson and Conor McLaughlin both diving into crucial last-ditch challenges to keep the scores level.
Finally, with 54 minutes on the clock, the home side brilliantly forged a genuine opening and forced a first save from Michael McGovern.
At the end of a fine passing move, Ladislav Krejci’s reverse ball picked out Vaclav Kadlec to drill into the goalkeeper’s arms from just beyond the penalty spot.
O’Neill’s men were still playing their part – Stuart Dallas’ centre somehow evading Josh Magennis – but the Czechs then quite incredibly failed to convert the best chance of the game.
A bouncing ball in the Northern Ireland area reached Novak completely unmarked just yards out, where he somehow smashed a strike wide with the goal at his mercy.
Barring the occasional mad dash upfield, the game was now being played in the visitors’ box, and Jonny Evans was required to make a fine block at Kadlec’s feet before Krejci failed to nod on target.
But, as happened so often in their previous qualification campaign, O’Neill’s side held out, battling to a potentially crucial away result.
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