INTERNATIONAL: Davis desperate to seize second at earliest opportunity

Steven Davis speaks to the media at Windsor Park. Pic: Presseye
Steven Davis speaks to the media at Windsor Park. Pic: Presseye

Northern Ireland captain Steve Davis is determined to seize an early opportunity to jump into second spot in Group C.

In their victorious Group F campaign for Euro 2016 qualification, Davis’ Northern Ireland side hit top spot after just the second round of fixtures.

And they managed to stay in the top two qualification places for the remainder of the campaign.

That was no coincidence. In fact, Davis says their bright start played a huge part in the team’s overall qualification success.

Now two years on and in their World Cup qualifying campaign, Davis and his team-mates have the opportunity to get into the potential play-off spot of second place tonight in Belfast.

And that, the skipper reckons, could again prove all-important.

“Momentum in football is huge,” he said before Northern Ireland’s game against Azerbaijan tonight.

“It’s a very important game for us. I don’t necessarily think it will define where we’re going to finish in the group but it gives us an opportunity to get into the position we want to be. There’s no hiding from the fact that it’s an important game.

“The fact that it’s at home as well - our home form is very consistent and we pick up wins here. We’re determined to get the result that will lead us into March in a very healthy position.”

Whatever the result, Northern Ireland will have plenty of time to mull it over. The next World Cup qualifying game doesn’t take place until March 26, when Norway visit the National Stadium at Windsor Park.

In order to make that an easier wait and jump above Azerbaijan into second, Davis thinks it will require the same persistence and cutting edge that eventually saw Northern Ireland beat San Marino 4-0 in their last outing at Windsor Park.

“It will be a very similar approach from us,” he says. “They drop very deep, very early and are comfortable in terms of letting the other team have possession.

“It’s going to be up to us to break them down. We’re going up against better opposition, with respect to San Marino, so we’re going to have to be wary of the threat that they pose.

“We have to try and get that balance but the important thing for us is to play with the same intensity that we did against San Marino. Hopefully we can show our quality again.”

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill confirmed that Conor Washington is a doubt for tonight’s game with a groin injury. He missed training on Wednesday and Thursday.

Liam Boyce and Michael Duffy were called up to the squad earlier this week after Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas were both forced out of the squad through injury.

“There’s no doubt that’s a blow to us,” O’Neill said of their withdrawal.

“In the three games, Jamie’s been excellent but it will give opportunities to other players coming in and what we have seen is that when those opportunities are presented, players have taken them.

“I think the squad is a little bit stronger to deal with it than it has been in the past.”