Northern Ireland are making a strong fist of their campaign to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Manager Michael O’Neill has already made huge strides with his side by attaining a place at Euro 2016 last year, their first major tournament in 30 years.
Norn Iron performed well on the big stage, qualifying for the second round of the competition after defeating Ukraine to advance from the group phase.
Only a fine display from fellow home nation Wales knocked O’Neill’s side out of the competition, but the nation had plenty of reasons to be positives in their first major tournament in three decades.
They were handed a tough challenge in their group for qualifying for the World Cup – at least on paper – facing defending champions Germany along with the Czech Republic and Norway in the battle for second place.
However, in the early stages of the campaign, Norn Iron have proved once again that they are a force to be reckoned with; they are only five points off the pace of Joachim Low’s men, who lead the group at the half-way point.
The Green and Whites proved their progress under O’Neill by brushing aside Norway with relative ease in their last qualifying contest. Jamie Ward and Conor Washington scored first-half efforts to secure the win, which never seemed to be in doubt from the opening whistle at Windsor Park.
Since the beginning of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland have been outstanding on home soil, losing only to Germany in competitive action as Mario Gomez scored the only goal of the game.
Windsor Park has become a fortress to build NI’s form around, as they demonstrated in their brilliant performance under pressure to defeat Greece at the end of 2015 to book their place at the Euros.
O’Neill and his men will need to maintain that level of excellence on home soil in their bid to reach the World Cup. Norn Iron have matches down the stretch against Germany and the Czech Republic that will test their mettle in their bid to earn second place in Group C, and after that, a potential playoff could await against another quality opponent.
One of the key characteristics that O’Neill has brought to the team is their resilience at the back.
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West Brom duo Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley have forged a strong understanding at the back for the Baggies in their second season together at club level.
As a result of their fine performances, Tony Pulis’ men are backed at 3/25 in the bitcoin betting odds to finish as top dogs in the Midlands ahead of Stoke City and Leicester City.
Evans and McAuley have brought their outstanding form into the international arena, starting during the Euro 2016 qualifiers and once again in Norn Iron’s bid to reach the World Cup.
Evans’ former Manchester United team-mate Craig Cathcart has also flourished for the Green and Whites alongside them as part of a back three.
As a result, Northern Ireland Iron have only conceded twice in their qualifying campaign so far – with both goals coming in their 2-0 defeat at the hands of Germany in Hanover, where Julian Draxler and Sami Khedira broke through their backline. Other than that, O’Neill’s men have pitched four shutouts, which has given them a strong foundation to push forward in the final stages.
The Green and Whites are not blessed with a number of talented attacking players, but with a solid backline in place, they know that one strike could deliver the three points. Their performances have been good enough thus far, but they may need to raise their level to send the team to Russia next year.