Euro 2016: Rediscovering my scoring touch is the ultimate goal against Wales, says Steven Davis
In terms of football, inspirational Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis is pro Europe. His goals for both club and country tell you that.
Last October, when the pressure was on for Northern Ireland to secure automatic qualification to the Euro 2016 finals with victory against once formidable Greece at Windsor Park, he delivered with two fantastic goals, which ultimately gave Michael O'Neill's men their table-topping tickets to France.
When Davis' club Southampton were chasing a greatly valued Europa League place last month, the 31-year-old duly netted two vital goals against title-chasing Tottenham and a single effort in a 4-1 win over Crystal Palace on the final day of the season. The Saints finished in fifth place in the Premier League and can now look forward to travelling the continent on Thursday nights.
Davis is the man for the big occasion, scores crucial goals and unlike the consensus of the UK public, he is determined for Northern Ireland to stay in Europe.
Having narrowly failed to find the net against Poland, Ukraine and Germany in the group matches at Euro 2016, Davis hopes to play a goalscoring role in Northern Ireland's biggest game for 34 years - a last 16 derby clash against Wales at the Parc des Princes in a hot and humid Paris.
The Northern Ireland captain said: "I maybe haven't scored as many goals as I would have liked. As a midfielder, you always want to chip in, it's about getting into the right spaces, hoping team-mates find you and when you get a chance, you have to put it away.
"I was lucky to score important goals in qualifying, I'm yet to get off the mark here but hopefully against Wales I can get myself up and running."
Davis opened his Northern Ireland goalscoring account 11 years ago, ironically against Wales in a World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park when Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs made sure the Dragons came away with a 3-2 win.
He's scored eight goals in total for his country but if he finds the net tonight and Northern Ireland were to go on and claim a quarter-final berth, it would be his greatest moment in a green shirt.
Davis added: "The players are really looking forward to it. We don't need any extra motivation, we're loving the journey we're on and hopefully when the final whistle goes we're all celebrating."
Germany boss Joachim Low knew how important Davis was to the Northern Ireland team and basically shut off his supply line. On the odd occasion when he did gain possession, the dominant Germans made sure they had two and sometimes three men on him every time.
Wales manager Chris Coleman yesterday insisted his side would have no special plans to curtail the former title-winning Rangers central midfielder because he argues Northern Ireland possess more than just one good player.
But Davis knows he will not be in for an easy ride and expects a full blood and thunder battle against fellow Premier League stars Aaron Ramsey and Joe Ledley.
Having engaged in many an Old Firm contest during his four years in Scotland, Davis has vast experience in high profile derbies, and says with so much on the line, there will be a great intensity from the first whistle blown by English referee Martin Atkinson.
"There will definitely be an edge to it," conceded Davis.
"I think both sets of players will be extremely pumped up because of what's riding on it and what's at stake. We have a chance to go through to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.
"There's a lot of similarities with the two teams in terms of progress over the last couple of years - so therefore it's bound to have an edge to it. Both sets of fans have been magnificent and both sets of players believe they can progress. It's going to be a great opportunity, and one we're looking forward to."
If Davis is Northern Ireland's star turn then Welsh wizard Gareth Bale is the player the men in green must nullify if they are to have a chance of claiming a stunning victory.
But Davis is confident Northern Ireland can deal with Real Madrid's Bale, just like they did with Poland's Robert Lewandowski and Ukraine's Andriy Yarmolenko.
He concluded: "You only have to look at the contribution Gareth Bale's made in terms of goals and assists to see how important he is. He's obviously a special player but it's not down to one individual to stop him.
"Not only do we have to stop him but also the rest of the Welsh team. He's obviously a player we'll keep a keen eye on, but we need to focus on ourselves and make sure we play to our strengths and get the result we desperately want."
A little bit of previous...
Euro 2016 opponents Wales and Northern Ireland have played each other 60 times since the partition of Ireland in 1921. Wales were 2-1 victors in their first fixture at Swansea in April 1921 and have won 27, drawn 18 and lost 15 of the 60 games. Here, we look at six of their memorable meetings before today’s last 16 tie at the Parc des Princes in Paris.
March 31, 1954, Wales 1 Northern Ireland 2: The 1953-54 British Home Championship doubled up as a qualifying group for the 1954 World Cup. Peter McParland scored twice to give Northern Ireland a 2-0 lead at Wrexham before John Charles claimed a late consolation. But it was still England who made it through to the finals in Switzerland that year.
April 15, 1964, Wales 2 Northern Ireland 3: A British Home Championship game in Swansea remembered for George Best making his Northern Ireland debut. Best did not get on the scoresheet at the Vetch Field, but he still enjoyed a winning start as Martin Harvey, Samuel Wilson and James McLaughlin scored. Ron Davies and Brian Godfrey replied for Wales.
September 8, 2004, Wales 2 Northern Ireland 2: An incredible 2006 World Cup qualifier in Cardiff saw three players sent off and Wales recover from a two-goal deficit to draw. Robbie Savage and Michael Hughes were dismissed after an eighth-minute clash before Jeff Whitley and David Healy (left) scored for Northern Ireland. But Healy was red-carded for an over-exuberant goal celebration and John Hartson and Robert Earnshaw secured a share of the spoils.
October, 8, 2005, Northern Ireland 2 Wales 3: The Belfast return just over a year later saw Wales claim their first win of the campaign. Simon Davies fired Wales ahead, Carl Robinson added a second and the game would have been over but for Maik Taylor saving Hartson’s weak penalty. Keith Gillespie and Steve Davis levelled for Northern Ireland, but a stunning Ryan Giggs (above) free-kick gave Wales victory.
May 27, 2011, Wales 2 Northern Ireland 0: Only 529 fans turned up - thought to be a record low attendance for both nations - at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium. The occasion was the short-lived Nations Cup which also included Scotland and hosts the Republic of Ireland. Aaron Ramsey and Earnshaw were on target for Wales as the late Gary Speed enjoyed the first victory of his brief managerial reign.
March 24, 2016, Wales 1 Northern Ireland 1: The most recent game between the two countries was in March ahead of the Euros. Craig Cathcart’s shot on the turn on the hour mark looked like handing Northern Ireland their first away friendly win in almost a decade. But Wales - without star men Ramsey and Gareth Bale - rallied at the end and Simon Church converted a last-minute penalty.