Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

The night Jonny Evans became a star

Jonny Evans produced a masterclass in the art of defending in Porto

Best player in the world? Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? The debate continues. There was no debate, though, in Porto on Tuesday night about who the best player on the pitch was.

It was the magnificent, the mighty, the monumental Jonny Evans.

He was head and shoulders above everyone else in the Estadio Do Dragao and that's saying something considering all the outstanding performances from Northern Ireland's heroes, who earned a deserved 1-1 draw against a high class Portuguese side supposed to batter them.

With Ronaldo winning his 100th cap all the pre-match talk had been about him, but come the final whistle it was the name of Jonny Evans being spoken about in revered tones following a World Cup qualifier dripping with drama.

When Manchester United's Evans was so calm and collected on his international debut at Windsor Park during an epic 3-2 victory over Spain in 2006, one sensed he was going to be something special, but it's only been lately in a Northern Ireland shirt that he has started to realise all that potential.

Maybe it is the influence of new boss Michael O'Neill or the fact that Evans is relishing the extra responsibility of being vice-captain. Whatever, it's working.

Evans impressed in Northern Ireland's opening game of this World Cup campaign — a 2-0 defeat in Russia — and against Luxembourg in Belfast when the visitors somehow drew 1-1.

In Portugal he hit top gear combining defensive excellence with footballing ability to put on the most majestic of displays.

He always seemed to be in the right place when the home side attacked and make the right choice in possession.

A case in point was his precision pass to Kyle Lafferty who in turn set up Niall McGinn for Northern Ireland's goal.

As the rain poured down, the 24-year-old, enjoying his best game for his country, must have felt like he was walking on water.

What made his performance even better was that it inspired less experienced defenders Craig Cathcart and Ryan McGivern, who were exceptional.

Record goalscorer David Healy was watching from the bench in awe.

He's almost played 100 times for Northern Ireland and said it was as good as he's seen from one of our back four, while the great Luis Figo told me in Porto airport that on the evidence of Tuesday Jonny can be anything he wants to be.

What about Britain's best defender for starters? For sure if he can maintain that form for club and country.

While Evans was the star performer, every other Northern Ireland player deserves the praise coming their way for what was the greatest performance I have witnessed in the flesh from our wee country on the road.

I was a schoolboy in the 80s when we celebrated those famous victories in Spain, Germany and Romania and while there have been some fine away days since I started covering international football in the mid 90s, nothing compared to the draw in Portugal, which would have been a win but for Helder Postiga's late equaliser.

Think who we were playing. Portugal, one of the best in the world, captained by the iconic Ronaldo.

Everything that you would have wanted was there — hunger, commitment, skill, discipline and organisation with the team perfectly prepared tactically by the manager during a five day training camp which was clearly beneficial.

Now we have to build on this and beat Azerbaijan at Windsor next month.

Former Shamrock Rovers boss O'Neill has some big choices to make if everyone is fit and available.

Gareth McAuley and Shane Ferguson are certs to return though Cathcart and Corry Evans can feel unfortunate if they have to make way.

Ferguson should join McGinn and the experienced Steve Davis and Chris Baird in midfield, but who will play just behind Kyle Lafferty? Oliver Norwood, who did so well against Portugal, Dean Shiels or Chris Brunt?

These are good selection dilemmas for the boss to have.

We're not going to qualify for the finals in Brazil in 2014, but finishing third in Group F would be a fantastic result. We're fourth at present but moving forward.

After a rough old time, there are smiles on the faces of Northern Ireland players and fans again. Sure beats those frowns.

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