Belfast Telegraph

Draw in Tel Aviv has given Northern Ireland belief: Chris Baird

By Steven Beacom

Chris Baird has predicted that if Northern Ireland take the confidence and belief on show in their fight back against Israel this week into the 2016 European Championship qualifiers, they will have a 'great chance of qualifying'.

After what was a frustrating World Cup campaign, that's an extremely optimistic outlook.

Experienced defender Baird is not prone to making rash statements though, so his comments should be taken seriously even if many Northern Ireland fans have been left deflated by events in Group F which saw the team claim fifth place in the group, one point ahead of rock bottom Luxembourg.

Baird (above) has known good times and bad in the international set up since making his debut a decade ago.

He has been a resolute character in the squad in that time and perhaps had he played more in this campaign, results would have been better.

Without a club up until recently when he joined Reading, Baird, now 31, has stated that he wants to carry on playing for Northern Ireland.

That's good news for manager Michael O'Neill (below) and the supporters, some of whom feared the man from Rasharkin would call it a day to focus on his club career.

Even when he was suspended, injured or just not match fit as a free agent Baird kept a watching brief on the Northern Ireland side. Delighted to back in it from the start on Tuesday night in Tel Aviv, he produced the sort of solid and steady performance that has been trademark.

O'Neill paid tribute to Baird and the player in turn was pleased that the team ended the campaign on a positive note with a 1-1 draw in Israel after going behind in the first half. A well taken equaliser from Steven Davis in the second period earned the visitors a deserved point as they played with real purpose and desire.

"I thought we were fantastic throughout the game," said Baird.

"I was disappointed with their goal but we came back really well and we had a lot of chances and could have won it in the end.

"We played some very good football, which we have done a lot of times through the campaign.

"It's a result to be proud of. We passed the ball with real confidence and belief. We know we have the players who can do that and it was great to see.

"If we can continue to do that through the next campaign I think we have great chance of qualifying."

To make that dream come true, Northern Ireland will need to finish in the top three of their European Championship group.

With Euro 2016 extended to 24 teams, the top two in qualifying groups are set to go through to the finals automatically with the third placed team involved in a play-off.

Manager O'Neill added: "If we continue to work hard, we can try to achieve that third spot in the next Euro qualifiers."

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