Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland still a world away from Russia, but belief high: Davis

By Adam McKendry

In February 2012, a new era of Northern Ireland football was ushered in as a fresh-faced manager with new ideas took the helm at Windsor Park and began preparing for his first match in charge.

Norway were the visitors to Belfast on that night, the 29th, and quickly crushed any dreams of an ideal start for Michael O'Neill, winning 3-0.

Back then the Norwegians were looking to break into the top 20 of the world rankings, while Northern Ireland were simply battling to try and maintain their top 100 status.

If there was ever an accurate representation of how times have changed, it was reflected in Northern Ireland's 2-0 win over the same opponents at Windsor Park on Sunday night, just over five years since O'Neill's debut defeat.

Now, 44 games later, the two teams' fortunes have changed dramatically.

Norway have slowly fallen away, with their major tournament drought stretching back to 2000, and now languish 81st in the world rankings.

By contrast, Northern Ireland have excelled under O'Neill, ended their major tournament duck at last year's Euros and sit 35th in the world rankings, leading captain Steven Davis to admit they're a world away from that 3-0 loss.

"We've come a long, long way in that time and hopefully we can continue to grow," reflected Davis, who made his debut as captain in that loss to Norway five years ago.

That long, long way was reflected in how easy their victory was on Sunday night.

The game was won when Jamie Ward curled the ball in after just two minutes, with Conor Washington doubling the advantage for good measure. Michael McGovern was so rarely tested in goal that the hosts sauntered to victory in the second half without ever leaving second gear.

All the talk before the game about how difficult a task this might be against relatively unknown opponents seemed futile, and Davis admitted that tactically they got it right on the night.

"We expected them to play two up top, which they did, so that gave us the advantage in the central areas of defence," he revealed.

"Michael's very clued in tactically and he wasn't far off in working out what team they were going to play so that was good.

"This was going to be a tough game to prepare for in the sense that they have a new manager in place and different personnel in the team and we didn't really know what to expect, but we knew they were going for a reaction and that's why the early goal was so important."

With 10 points from their opening five games, Northern Ireland sit second in Group C and are in pole position to secure a play-off spot for a place at the 2018 World Cup.

They still have trips to San Marino and Norway to look forward to, as well as two mouthwatering home clashes against World champions and runaway group leaders Germany, and third-placed Czech Republic.

A trip to Baku to face Azerbaijan in June is next up for Davis' charges - after the friendly against New Zealand - and the Southampton midfielder says they're delighted with where they are but they can't get ahead of themselves.

"There's a lot of football still to be played so we won't get carried away. We're really happy with the position we're in, but we have some tough fixtures to come and there's no easy games," Davis added.

"We know we have to be right at it in every game to get results - we've managed to do that consistently here at home and hopefully we can take that confidence into the away games now."

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