Michael O’Neill believes his players “deserve” a play-off to reach the World Cup in Russia after they set a new national record with a fourth successive win.
Two goals from Josh Magennis and a Steven Davis penalty - all scored between the 70th and 78th minute - clinched a 3-0 success at minnows San Marino as O’Neill’s side followed up previous triumphs over Norway, New Zealand and Azerbaijan.
No other Northern Ireland side has ever pieced together such a sequence, and only three have ever featured at a World Cup finals, but the current crop are in a fine position to follow the teams of 1958, 1982 and 1986.
They currently boast a seven-point advantage in second over Czech Republic with three qualifiers to come, and would guarantee at least a runners-up berth if they manage a draw against the Czechs in Belfast on Monday.
With eight of the nine second-placed sides then advancing to a two-legged play off in November to reach Russia, O’Neill knows his side have an excellent shot at being involved in back-to-back major tournaments.
“When we came into this campaign we were holding on to a fantastic experience of France and you never want the standards to drop,” he said.
“You’re always a little bit vulnerable, we didn’t have an influx of players so it’s testament to those players, to their motivation that they’ve continued to do what they’ve done, to put themselves in the position they’re in, they deserve the chance to go to Russia.
“If we can take care of business on Monday night, and have a play-off to look forward to, it’s something for us to relish.
“In essence, if we can do that, our World Cup will start in November.”
“There was a patience and assuredness about us, even in the second half, and a belief that they would get that goal,” O’Neill added of his players.