Northern Ireland can make late gains against a much-changed Czech side on Sunday night.
Czech Republic v Northern Ireland - Sunday 19:45, Sky Sports 1
The Czech Republic endured a difficult Euro 2016 campaign, finishing last in a tough group featuring Spain, Croatia and Turkey. Whilst their performance against the latter was insipid, they battled from two goals down against Croatia to earn a draw and only lost narrowly to Spain in their opener. However, this is a much changed Czech side with veteran keeper Petr Cech (who was instrumental against Spain) having retired along with Tomas Rosicky.
Northern Ireland have their own problems with personnel at the back with the unavailability of Aaron Hughes and in particular Craig Cathcart, who played every minute of their Euro 2016 campaign. Defensive strength was the foundation on which Northern Ireland qualified for the tournament, and despite the losses still have Paddy McNair, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Conor McLaughlin and Ryan McGivern, and so shouldn’t be too unduly compromised in that department.
Whilst some Northern Ireland fans may wish to see Michael O’Neill find a way to squeeze both the mercurial talents of Kyle Lafferty and the impressive Conor Washington into the same team, the coach should resist and look to pack the midfield in order to keep the defensive shape rather than alter a successful formula.
With Northern Ireland having drawn the first half in 10 of their last 15 matches, added to the limitations of this Czech Republic side, the draw/Northern Ireland (HT/FT) at 10.5 looks attractive.