WC qualifiers: Northern Ireland holds Czechs to goalless draw

Northern Ireland opened its World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign with a goalless draw against Group C rivals the Czech Republic in Prague on Sunday.

McGovern - cropped

Michael McGovern battles with Ladislav Krejci.

Northern Ireland opened its World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign with a goalless draw against Group C rivals the Czech Republic in Prague on Sunday.

Playing its first competitive game since its 1-0 defeat to Wales in the last-16 phase of Euro 2016, Northern Ireland relied on solid defence 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 its 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."

The host 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.

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 leads Group C after beating Norway 3-0 at Oslo on Sunday, ahead of Azerbaijan who won 1-0 at San Marino.

Northern Ireland next faces 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."

Final score: Czech Republic 0 - Northern Ireland 0