Belfast Telegraph

Super Davis delivers in style again

Northern Ireland 1-0 Latvia

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland...what a team. First they qualify for the Euro 2016 finals and now they have started to win friendlies!

Last night's 1-0 victory over Latvia at Windsor Park, secured by a second half goal from captain marvel Steven Davis, was the first friendly success for manager Michael O'Neill and the first for the country since March, 2008 when Georgia were beaten 4-1 in Belfast.

Back then record goalscorer David Healy scored at both ends, Kyle Lafferty struck twice and Linfield's Peter Thompson hit the net for the home side.

Southampton star Davis, who played in that game seven years ago, was the only man on target on this Friday 13th encounter, finally ending Northern Ireland's horror run in fixtures without points at stake.

Davis has now scored three times in his last two Windsor appearances.

You may remember the previous one, when the midfielder struck twice in the 3-1 win over Greece that sealed Northern Ireland's place at next year's European Championship finals in France.

The 30-year-old has been an important player for Northern Ireland since making his debut over a decade ago, but under O'Neill he has moved to a completely new level of excellence.

Once again last night he looked a class act and when he was taken off late in the game, watched by a full house crowd of 11,707, the reception from the fans was one of total respect for the captain.

The result was a fitting way to end what has been a truly momentous year with a major tournament on the agenda for the first time in three decades in 2016.

This may have been a friendly but O'Neill was determined to maintain the momentum built up during the Euro 2016 campaign and to that end he played his strongest team, though he did experiment with his system going with a 3-5-2 formation.

Michael McGovern was in goal with Premier League stars Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart operating in a solid looking back line. Conor McLaughlin played at right wing back and Stuart Dallas was on the other side in an unfamiliar role.

In midfield it was the usual trio of Davis, Chris Baird and Oliver Norwood with Kyle Lafferty and Jamie Ward operating in attack.

Ward, such a lively performer, was all over the top end of the pitch playing alongside Lafferty, just behind the big striker or raiding down either flank.

It was no surprise that early in the game it was the Nottingham Forest man who had the first strikes on goal, twice warming the hands of Latvian goalkeeper Andris Vanins on a bitterly cold evening. Ward's second effort came after a delicious pass from Baird.

Northern Ireland were by far the superior side and just after the 30 minute mark had opportunities to take the lead on two occasions.

First Vanins made a comfortable stop from Davis after a flowing move and then the skipper provided Lafferty with a golden chance, sending him clear of the visiting defence with a lofted pass.

With Lafferty bearing down on goal the fans expected to see the net bulge, only for the Norwich striker to drag his shot wide.

There was rustiness in the finish.

Hardly a shock given how little time he has played at club level since last month's international in Finland, but even so the Fermanagh man, such a big hero with the Northern Ireland fans now, will have been disappointed not to have hit the target.

As the first half neared its conclusion, the home side continued their dominance but without breaking the deadlock as a deflected free-kick from Norwood was headed wide by Evans.

At the start of the second half, the ever popular Roy Carroll received loud cheers coming on to replace McGovern and Corry Evans joined his brother on the pitch with Norwood making way.

Norwood would have been proud of the stunning 50 yard pass delivered by McAuley into the path of Dallas moments after the break.

Heck, Andrea Pirlo would have been pleased with it. Unfortunately the cross that followed from the Leeds United ace came to nothing.

There seemed to be a higher intensity about the team with Lafferty, in particular, keen to make a mark.

On 49 minutes the man who scored seven goals in the qualifying campaign showed real strength and skill to beat defenders before lashing in a shot that the Latvia number one pushed out.

Moments later Lafferty was inches away from heading home at the far post as O'Neill's men upped the ante in search of a goal.

That was to be Lafferty's last meaningful action as he was replaced shortly after by Josh Magennis. The standing ovation given to the forward as he departed the pitch was well deserved. The 28-year-old former Rangers ace has been magnificent for Northern Ireland this year.

For the moment at any rate his old Ibrox team-mate Davis has taken over the scoring mantle.

Following the captain's double against Greece, he was at it again last night netting the opener on 55 minutes.

Cathcart showed his footballing prowess with a brilliant cross to find Davis who had ghosted into the area.

The Southampton midfielder could and probably should have scored with his head but after Vanins kept that effort out, he was alert enough to turn home the rebound from close range.

In his 79th international appearance, Davis had scored his eighth international goal.

Late on Liam Boyce and Shane Ferguson replaced Ward and Dallas respectively with Paddy McCourt coming on for Davis as Northern Ireland extended their unbeaten record to eight matches.

The last time Northern Ireland were on a run like this was 30 years ago when Billy Bingham's side went nine games without losing.

That was some team. So is this one.

Belfast Telegraph