Czech Republic 0, Northern Ireland 0: Northern Ireland took a point from their opening World Cup qualifier as Filip Novak’s stunning miss let Michael O’Neill’s side snatch a 0-0 draw with the Czech Republic.
Two years on from a victory in Hungary which kickstarted their run to the Euro 2016 finals, the feel-good buzz accrued from featuring in France this summer evaporated somewhat with a stalemate against the equally underwhelming Czechs.
Boss O’Neill may be satisfied with a share of the spoils, a return they only got due to Novak’s mystifying second-half close-range blunder, but the manner of performance suggested there is plenty to do if they are to reach Russia in 2018.
The presence of world champions Germany in their group had both teams stressing before the match that their realistic aim was to snaffle the group’s play-off berth, and a below-par contest indicated a fear over an opening loss.
Paddy McNair, who was among those brought in from the side defeated by Wales in Paris, also looked lost.
There is hope the youngster could truly develop to a player befitting his Premier League status on the road to Russia and he showed why O’Neill rates him so highly by firing a left-footed try which Tomas Vaclik had to push wide from 20 yards.
That was as good as it got for Northern Ireland and any hopes the rust would be shaken off after the break proved unfounded.
When McNair’s short pass went straight out of play, the Czechs broke and a last-ditch challenge from Conor McLaughlin prevented Novak from testing Michael McGovern, who then almost gave the hosts a glorious opportunity when failing to claim a routine cross.
There was no Northern Irish pressure when Vaclav Kadlec was given space to fire a weak side-footed attempt straight at McGovern and nobody in O’Neill’s ranks was anywhere near Novak when the ball dropped to him seven yards out.
Fortunately for McGovern and his team-mates, the full-back somehow smashed his left-footed attempt wide to absolute disbelief around the Generali Arena.
The crumbs of comfort for O’Neill came again from his defence, which kept a fifth clean sheet in eight.
Vaclik, Kaderabek, Suchy, Michal Kadlec, Novak, Skalak (Kopic 77), Pavelka, Darida, Krejci, Skoda (Necid 68), Vaclav Kadlec (Vydra 83).
McGovern, McLaughlin, Jonny Evans, McAuley, Ferguson, Norwood (Hodson 66), Davis, Dallas, Ward (McGinn 74), Lafferty (Magennis 59), McNair. Not Used: Mannus, Boyce, Washington, Corry Evans, McGivern, Smith, Lund, Morris, Carson.
Tasos Sidiropoulos (Greece).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved