Czech Republic ‘stiff test’ ideal for Northern Ireland’s Michael O’Neill

Northern Ireland's Corry Evans, Conor McLaughlin and Jonny Evans during Sunday's training session in Prague ahead of the friendly against the Czech Republic. Pic by PressEye Ltd.
Northern Ireland's Corry Evans, Conor McLaughlin and Jonny Evans during Sunday's training session in Prague ahead of the friendly against the Czech Republic. Pic by PressEye Ltd.
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Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is relishing the “stiff test” provided by a Czech Republic side fresh from victory over England.

Tonight’s friendly in Prague offers Northern Ireland a first match to move on from last week’s crushing loss to Holland that signalled a significant blow to Euro 2020 qualification hopes.

Josh Magennis’ goal handed Northern Ireland hope in Rotterdam before Holland hit back with late efforts for a 3-1 win.

Victory would have left Northern Ireland in search of a single point in Belfast next month against Holland, with a draw still keeping alive the dream.

As it stands, a play-off route appears the most realistic option following a loss described as leaving the Northern Ireland camp feeling “raw”.

In contrast, the Czech Republic play host bolstered by Friday’s 2-1 defeat of England in the qualifying stages.

“They are obviously more experienced and we very impressed by what we saw in the game on Friday night, having watched it back last night,” O’Neill said. “That’s good, it will be a stiff test for us, their coach may make changes and do things as well.

“The main thing is that both teams get what they want from the game.”

The odds will perhaps be against Northern Ireland, without an away win in a friendly since 2006, but O’Neill is expected to field a strong side having initially indicated he could make sweeping changes.

Cardiff City defender Ciaron Brown and Linfield striker Shayne Lavery flew to Romania to join up with Ian Baraclough’s under 21s, leaving 21 players in Prague.

“It’s a good decision to let them to go the under 21s as opposed to possibly playing a tiny part of this game,” O’Neill said. “It will strengthen Ian’s hand as he’s had one or two injury problems.

“The mood is good - we took the players out for dinner in Rotterdam on Friday night and that was good and it lifted the mood.”

Northern Ireland under 21s meet Romania tonight in the Euro 2021 qualifiers having last week lost to Denmark.

Though the play-offs look like a better bet now for the senior side, Leicester defender Jonny Evans said Thursday’s performance gives them belief.

“It shows we can compete with these teams and we can be proud of certain aspects of our game,” Evans said. “The manager always looks at things to improve after the game but the most important thing is that we have come a long way tactically.

“The manager always has us well organised and disciplined.

“It was a different type of game we had to play and I thought we carried out that plan very well.”

O’Neill will make several changes tonight, with Michael McGovern expected to start in goal.

The Norwich keeper came into the international window having recently made his Premier League debut at the age of 35, something he called a “special achievement”.