Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Steven Davis can help make Northern Ireland smile on landmark play-off November nights

 

By Steven Beacom

Defeat it may have been, but there was no despair as Northern Ireland ended their World Cup group fixtures in Oslo.

After all, last night Michael O'Neill's men confirmed their place in next month's all or nothing play-offs for a spot in the big show in Russia next year.

That was the key factor and what a fantastic achievement it is.

Forget the Chris Brunt own goal that led to a 1-0 loss to Norway and consider this: Northern Ireland are just 180 minutes away from the country's first World Cup finals appearance since 1986.

And the Green and White Army are just 180 minutes from marching across Red Square in Moscow.

Everyone would have taken that at the start of this campaign.

The scoreline inside the Ullevaal Stadion did not help Northern Ireland's cause in terms of being seeded for the play-offs but the most important result for O'Neill was that none of the six players one booking away from a suspension ended up with a yellow card.

Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Oliver Norwood, Stuart Dallas and Josh Magennis will all be available for selection in next month's first leg as will captain fantastic Steven Davis, who is set to win his 100th cap.

Don't be surprised if the midfield maestro marks it in style. He has that sense of timing as you will recall from his double against Greece at Windsor Park to take Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals.

Last night's display was the worst of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. It was flat, lacking intensity and Brunt's own goal was comical but there is a bigger picture here and you can bet your savings for a trip to Russia that they will be much better when it really matters.

Before kick-off the players knew they had already made the play-offs thanks to Slovenia's 2-2 draw with Scotland.

That clearly played on their minds against Norway and without that edge it looked as though the Northern Ireland team were involved in a friendly - and let's face it Northern Ireland's record in friendlies, even under miracle worker O'Neill, hasn't been anything to write home about it.

In contrast this qualifying campaign has been something to savour.

Northern Ireland's players entered it determined to ensure they would not be known as one tournament wonders after their Euro 2016 heroics.

Having dared to dream, everyone connected with the squad believed there was more to come and so it has proved.

When the 2018 World Cup qualifying draw was made O'Neill was wise enough to declare his team were fighting for runners up spot behind the Germans.

With two games remaining in the group, that was guaranteed. Before the final match began in Oslo, a play-off berth had been secured.

Some going given the number of injuries to key players throughout the 10 games. Craig Cathcart, Liam Boyce, Jamie Ward, Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes and Paddy McNair have all missed chunks of the campaign.

Even without them Northern Ireland delivered with Jonny Evans continuing his growth in stature, the consistency of Davis shining through and players like Conor McLaughlin and Stuart Dallas developing superbly at the highest level.

In attack Josh Magennis has become the most improved player on the international scene while Conor Washington and Kyle Lafferty remain a threat up front.

Up until last night only World Champions Germany had beaten them or even scored against them in the group.

That should give O'Neill and his players great confidence entering next month's play-offs.

Of course being seeded would be preferable as it would mean avoiding a big gun like Italy, but believe me by the time the play-off comes around Davis, Evans, Magennis and the rest will have no fear who they are playing.

They will know it may well be a once in a lifetime opportunity for them - to reach a World Cup finals. Northern Ireland can do this. O'Neill will have faith, so too the players.

They will relish the two massive games ahead in November when they can put more smiles on the faces of the people of Northern Ireland.

The Euro 2016 finals were fantastic and a joy to behold but qualifying for the World Cup would be greater again and now it's just 180 minutes away.

Belfast Telegraph

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