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Northern Ireland World Cup dream can come true but it will be close call: Steven Davis

By Laure James

Published 15/11/2016

Park life: Steven Davis limbers up at Northern Ireland’s training session at Windsor Park yesterday ahead of tonight’s clash with Croatia
Park life: Steven Davis limbers up at Northern Ireland’s training session at Windsor Park yesterday ahead of tonight’s clash with Croatia

Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis has predicted the race to qualify for Russia will go to the wire. In the skipper's eyes, Group C is too close to call and as second-placed Northern Ireland ramp up their efforts to earn a spot at the next World Cup, Davis said there's no room for complacency.

"I don't think we're favourites, we don't have the right to have that tag at this moment in time. There's still a lot of football to play, and a lot of teams are going to drop points," he said. "It will probably go right down to the wire, but the most important thing is we are thereabouts and have given ourselves the opportunity."

The Southampton ace also confessed he can't pick his top moment from a glorious year for Northern Ireland. As Michael O'Neill's men prepare to kick off their 13th match of 2016 against Croatia tonight, Davo admitted he just couldn't single out a highlight in a year which has featured the first major tournament in three decades, and an unbeaten run at home spanning 10 games.

"There are probably too many to name to be honest," Davis added. "I wouldn't say there's just one thing, it was about being out there in France, getting to the Euros and sampling the atmosphere."

Even without one defining memory, the 81-times capped hero can be drawn into fond reflection.

"I've been around the squad for a long time now, many years, and I always feel very proud to represent my country," he said.

"Growing up, playing for the international team was always an ambition of mine and to get the level of success we've had makes all the hard work worthwhile.

"It's been beyond any of our imaginations. Where we've come as a group in such a short space of time. There's no better place for me to come back and play than here at Windsor."

While O'Neill is expected to reward some of the fringe players with a cap in this evening's friendly, Davis and other core players will play a part against a depleted Croatia side.

Real Madrid pair Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic have been left behind, while Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic, Liverpool's Dejan Lovren, former Tottenham defender Vedran Corluka and first-choice goalkeeper Danijel Subasic are also absent. Davis, however, is expecting a more experienced opposition than their squad list suggests, but has backed Northern Ireland to continue in their impressive form.

"It does give Michael a chance to maybe try some new things as well, hopefully it will be a good night for us," he said.

"They've obviously got quality throughout the team, players that can handle the ball in tight areas. Just looking back at when they beat Spain, it tells you the level of player they've got and how tough it's going to be. It's a good challenge for us.

"It was a very professional performance (against Azerbaijan), we're very well drilled. We've spoken before about exploiting teams, crosses into the box, something that hasn't happened for us. It's nice for that to come to fruition for us.

"I don't think we've given (the unbeaten run) too much thought, but we've managed to do well here and make it a tough place for teams to come. We want to continue that, make it a place teams know they're in for a game."

• There will be a special screening of the Spirit of '58 documentary at the Strand Cinema on Thursday to raise funds for the Street Soccer NI project.

The Irish FA and Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs are supporting the screening and admission will be £10. Contact 02890 665830 to book a seat.

See www.streetsoccerni.org for further information on the work of the initiative.

  • N Ireland v Croatia, International friendly: Windsor Park, Tonight, 7.45pm

Belfast Telegraph

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