Cathcart savouring heat of battle after a nightmare campaign of injury misery
After a season from hell with injury, defender Craig Cathcart is relishing the challenge of playing World Cup finalists Costa Rica in front of 35,000 passionate fans in their own backyard.
The Watford centre-back has been plagued by back, groin, hernia, knee and thigh issues since performing for Northern Ireland at the Euro 2016 finals in France.
He was able to play only five Premier League games towards the end of the season for the Hornets after two major injury setbacks and therefore Northern Ireland's two-match tour of Central America is the perfect opportunity for further game time before he takes a short summer rest and returns to Watford for pre-season.
The 29-year-old said: "I am fine - they (Watford) made sure after my last injury they took their time and didn't rush me back. I think it's paid off. Since I came back from my last injury I've felt great. I worked so hard to get back at it and then the season was over but it was good to get back into the routine in terms of travelling to the games and playing in them again. After those five games, I wanted more so I'm happy to be out here."
Cathcart starred in a Northern Ireland defensive back three alongside Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes with Shane Ferguson and Stuart Dallas acting as wing backs during Wednesday morning's draw in hot and humid Panama. With Jonny Evans continuing in his central midfield role, boss Michael O'Neill is likely to stick with that defensive formation and personnel for tomorrow's match in San Jose.
"We're used to playing the three with Northern Ireland," admitted. Cathcart. "Jonny fitted really well into midfield - the position suited him. We were pretty solid - I didn't think they created too much and it was a pretty even game. Maybe on another night we could have scored a few goals but we were comfortable in that formation."
Northern Ireland know that tomorrow's proposition at the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica will be a much tougher affair than Panama in terms of opponents rather than conditions.
Some of Costa Rica's stars are well known to British audiences with Real Madrid's Keylor Navas in goal and Bryan Ruiz (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Gamboa (Celtic), Bryan Oviedo (Sunderland) and Joel Campbell (Real Betis) all set to start.
Cathcart added: "The Panama game was played in really difficult conditions - definitely the hardest I have ever played in. The humidity hit you hard and you just couldn't recover. You usually have one big effort and then you have a bit of rest, but the recovery never came.
"But we now focus on Costa Rica and unlike Panama they have more players in Europe so we'll know more about them. They'll be full of confidence going into the World Cup so it will be a difficult game. The weather is better for us and they'll have a sold-out stadium so it will be another game for us to enjoy."