PRAGUE: Northern Ireland opened their World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign with a goalless draw against Group C rivals the Czech Republic in Prague on Sunday (Monday in Manila).
Playing their first competitive game since their 1-0 defeat to Wales in the last-16 phase of Euro 2016, Northern Ireland relied on solid defense and breakaways throughout the game.
“We’re pleased with the point,” said Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill.
“It’s a better point for us than it is for them, obviously.”
In their best scoring chance of a rather dull first half, Paddy McNair saw his low shot stopped by Czech keeper Tomas Vaclik.
The Czechs never managed to put the defensive visitors under real pressure during the first 45 minutes.
Pavel Kaderabek, Milan Skoda and Vladimir Darida all sent shots wide, leaving Northern Ireland keeper Michael McGovern with little to do.
“I thought first half we were very good at times, we defended well, we counter-attacked well, but… we should have done better with the final pass,” said O’Neill.
“We set our team up to play that way so it was pleasing to see the players took that on board.”
Czech coach Karel Jarolim, who took over from Pavel Vrba after Euro 2016 at which the Czechs bowed out following the group phase, said he was upset with the loss of points.
“But we have to raise our heads and go on,” he added.
The hosts created better chances early in the second half, but Vaclav Kadlec sent his low shot straight at McGovern after three Czechs had stormed into the visitors’ box.
Czech winger Filip Novak then squandered his team’s best chance as he blasted wide from five yards, while Ladislav Krejci and Jan Kopic both missed the target in the closing stages.
“I should have scored,” Novak told the Czech Television.
“I was alone and I could have asked him (McGovern) where I should place it. Unfortunately I missed.”
Jarolim said the second half “was better” and showed his team the way to go in the games to follow.
“We had enough scoring chances but failed to convert them.”
O’Neill blamed the “fatigue element” for his team’s lack of stamina after the break.
“We started the game with four players that have played very little club football this year, the front three and obviously Paddy McNair.”
“We weren’t as big a threat in terms of being on the counter-attack (in the second half), but again the spirit of the team, to defend and to make sure we took something from the game, was admirable.”
“We’re not going to come here to a team of the Czech Republic’s calibre and dominate possession of the ball.
“We’re a very good team when we don’t have the ball but we have to improve a lot when we do have it.”
Germany lead Group C after beating Norway 3-0 at Oslo on Sunday, ahead of Azerbaijan who won 1-0 at San Marino.
Northern Ireland next face San Marino at home on October 8 before travelling to Germany three days later.
“This group’s going to be tight,” said O’Neill.
“The great thing is we’ve got off to a good start — a difficult away game, we haven’t been beaten and now we’ve got a home game to look forward to that we need to win.”