Czechs could keep finals dream alive
World Cup qualifier
Sky Sports Mix, 7.45pm Monday
After being drawn in the same group as Germany, Northern Ireland always knew that automatic qualification for the World Cup would be unlikely.
But they have made a great fist of the battle for second place and have a seven-point cushion over the Czechs with three games left to play.
The big problem is that each of those games (Czech Republic at home, Germany at home and Norway away) are tough and their best chance of getting over the line is to avoid defeat against the Czechs in Belfast.
The visitors must win to keep their hopes alive and if they can stay in the hunt they have a much easier October schedule to look forward to with a visit to Azerbaijan and a home fixture against San Marino.
Bridging the seven-point gap is far from mission impossible and they can take heart from the excellent performance they produced in a 2-1 loss at home to Germany on Friday.
The Czechs won the shot count 16-11 and unsettled their opponents to such an extent that Germany coach Joachim Low had to admit in the post-match briefings that his team had "got lucky".
The Czech Republic's improvement may have come too late to rescue their hopes of reaching Russia 2018 but they are playing well enough to cause major problems for a Northern Ireland side stretched by injuries to key players.
Solid defending has been Northern Ireland's great strength in a campaign which has seen them concede just two goals.
But the heart of their rearguard is weakened by the absences of centre-backs Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Paddy McNair.
Veteran 37-year-old Hearts centre-back Aaron Hughes won his 106th cap in Friday's 3-0 victory away to San Marino but his lack of pace could be exposed against stronger opponents.
Northern Ireland will cause a few problems at the other end thanks to the physical presence of striker Josh Magennis and the goalscoring instincts of Conor Washington but the lack of a solid defensive base could cost them against a dangerous Czech side entering the last-chance saloon.
1pt 7-4 general
Defensive resources are stretched with Craig Cathcart, Paddy McNair (both knee) and Gareth McAuley (thigh) sidelined. Jamie Ward (calf) is also out.
Head coach Karel Jarolim has been focusing on youth and his squad features only one player over the age of 30 – wing-back Theodor Gebre Selassie.
Northern Ireland have never beaten the Czechs in five meetings.