Belfast Telegraph

Craig Cathcart poised for the nod to step up

By Steven Beacom

Craig Cathcart is in line for his first start in Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 qualifying campaign against Greece at Windsor Park on Thursday night.

Manager Michael O'Neill is confident that the Watford defender can step up and replace WBA's Jonny Evans, who is likely to miss out with a hamstring injury after being forced off in the first half of Saturday's 2-0 defeat at Crystal Palace.

While the Northern Ireland squad assembled at the Culloden Hotel yesterday, an Irish FA spokesperson confirmed that Evans had stayed in England to receive treatment from his club.

Fellow Baggies defender Gareth McAuley is struggling with a calf injury, but it is hoped that he will make Thursday's Group F encounter, when a home victory would see O'Neill's team qualify for next year's finals in France.

Should both Evans and McAuley be out it would be a massive blow, but if it is just the former, Cathcart has the capabilities to come into central defence and deliver a big performance.

He has been a regular in the Premier League with Watford this season and will relish playing an important role in what could be a historic evening for Northern Ireland.

To strengthen his squad, O'Neill yesterday called in Doncaster Rovers defender Luke McCullough and MK Dons midfielder Ben Reeves into the panel.

The manager has admitted that one of the key points of Northern Ireland's success in the Euro campaign has been the lack of injuries and suspensions, meaning he has been able to keep the spine of the side consistent throughout.

With Kyle Lafferty, Chris Baird and Conor McLaughlin banned and Evans injured for the Greece game, it will be up to others to see if they can ease Northern Ireland over the line.

O'Neill has pinpointed the experienced Aaron Hughes to replace McLaughlin at right-back, Manchester United's Paddy McNair to take over Baird's holding midfield role and Josh Magennis is favourite to come in up front for Lafferty, who has netted seven times in eight group games.

O'Neill has mulled over changing the system for the visit of Greece and if he goes ahead with that and opts for two up front, in-form Liam Boyce - scoring goals galore for Ross County in Scotland - will come into the reckoning.

A concern for O'Neill with Lafferty out will be who is going to score on Thursday night. That is why it is so vital that McAuley plays because he is Northern Ireland's second top scorer in the campaign with three goals.

O'Neill will have been pleased to have seen captain Steven Davis hit the target on Saturday in Southampton's impressive 3-1 win at Chelsea.

It was the midfielder's first goal in 602 days and Northern Ireland fans will hope it gives the crowd favourite the confidence to go and net his first international strike since he was on target in a 1-1 draw away to Israel two years ago.

Davis joked: "I thought I'd save the goal for a good occasion.

"It was a great lay-off from Graziano (Pellè) and it was nice to see it hit the back of the net. Hopefully it's the start of a few more to come."

Belfast Telegraph