O'Neill leads cohesive Northern Ireland toward World Cup

LONDON (AP) Northern Ireland's remarkable transformation under Michael O'Neill has the team closing in on its first World Cup berth since 1986.

The Northern Irish, who reached the last 16 at last year's European Championship, are in second place in Group C after beating the Czech Republic and still have a chance to qualify automatically if Germany slips up. A spot in the playoffs is more likely.

''Probably teams would say they wouldn't have minded playing Northern Ireland, but if they look at us over this campaign they'll probably say, actually no, we'd rather avoid Northern Ireland,'' O'Neill said after the 2-0 win over the Czechs at Windsor Park.

O'Neill took over in 2011, after Northern Ireland failed to reach Euro 2012, and has taken the team from 129th in FIFA rankings up to 23rd. In World Cup qualifying, the Northern Irish have a perfect home record and have 19 points from eight matches - five behind group leader Germany.

They face the Germans at home on Oct. 5 before ending their qualifying campaign at Norway on Oct. 8.

Northern Ireland has lost only five competitive games out of 22 since September 2014. That run of results has included away victories over Greece and Hungary in Euro 2016 qualifying and a scoreless draw at the Czech Republic last year.

The Northern Irish struggled under O'Neill in his first two years in charge and finished near the bottom of Group F in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. But O'Neill's methods slowly improved a squad made up of players plying their trade in England's lower divisions alongside Premier League regulars Jonny Evans, Christ Brunt and captain Steven Davis.

O'Neill has also galvanized consistent performances from strikers Josh Magennis, who plays for League One club Charlton, and Conor Washington.

Northern Ireland finished at the top of its Euro 2016 qualifying group after losing only one game and went on to reach the last 16 in France after beating Ukraine 1-0 in the final group game. The team lost to Wales 1-0 in extra time in the second round after Gareth McAuley scored an own-goal.

Following Euro 2016, many expected O'Neill to take up a Premier League job. But the former Newcastle and Wigan defender remained in his post and has led Northern Ireland to six wins from eight matches in Group C. The team has conceded only two goals while scoring 16, with the only loss coming at World Cup champion Germany in October.

''The fear is getting to the playoffs and not getting through it. The opposition will be what it will be,'' O'Neill said. ''Hopefully the draw - if and when we're in that position - will be somewhat kind to us.''

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