Belfast Telegraph

World Cup 2018

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Portugal POR

Denmark DNK

France FRA

Australia AUS

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Croatia CRO

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Argentina ARG

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Playing at World Cup finals would top 100 caps, says NI's Steven Davis

Personal milestone on horizon but skipper says it's all about team goal

By Steven Beacom

Steven Davis has declared that reaching the World Cup finals next year would mean more to him than winning 100 caps.

The Northern Ireland skipper made his 96th appearance for his country in Friday's 3-0 victory over San Marino and if all goes according to plan the Southampton midfielder should bring up the ton in the first leg of the play-offs in November.

That would be a spectacular occasion and fitting for a Northern Ireland sporting great and one of the finest footballers to put on a green shirt.

Davis, though, has never played at international level for the personal glory. He would prefer that the whole country enjoy a momentous month in Russia at next year's finals rather than celebrate his own special milestone.

Speaking ahead of tonight's match at home to the Czech Republic, which would safeguard second place in Group C for Michael O'Neill's side should they avoid defeat, 32-year-old Davis was quizzed on approaching the landmark.

He replied: "It's not something I have given a great deal of thought to because I prefer to focus on the match in the hand, but if we could qualify for the World Cup that would mean more than getting 100 caps."

From his first international in 2005 at senior level it was evident Davis was a special talent. Northern Ireland lost 1-0 at home to Canada that February night with the youngster, then at Aston Villa, a shining light amid the darkness.

Seven months later he was setting David Healy up to score THAT goal against England.

Davis has known some desperate times playing for Northern Ireland, not least a 3-2 defeat to Luxembourg in the last World Cup qualifying campaign four years ago this month.

Throughout it all his class has been evident.

Now he is reaping rewards that he questioned would ever come, proudly captaining his country in the Euro 2016 finals and possibly with a World Cup in Russia to follow. "It's been incredible. It's hard to say one specific thing (since the Luxembourg loss in 2013) that has changed everything for us.

"To be honest the team has grown a lot which comes with results and believing in what you're doing.

"It's a work in progress in and we're continuing to develop an understanding of what we're doing. The squad's getting stronger.

"We've had to deal with injuries and suspensions, players have come in and stepped up. There is great togetherness and we're enjoying the journey," stated the former Rangers hero, who added that he was delighted highly rated defender Virgil van Dijk stayed at Southampton during the transfer window. In San Marino Davis netted his 10th international goal taking him past iconic Northern Ireland stars such as George Best and Norman Whiteside on the scoring list.

He is one of NINE men to hit the net for O'Neill's team in this campaign, a key ingredient to the success to date.

"It's been good to share the goals around because there was a reliance on Kyle (Lafferty) in the last campaign," said Davis.

"We know that we have a strong defence and a very good clean sheet record so if we score we know we will have a good chance of getting a positive result in the game."

Tonight creative forces like Davis, Norwood, Chris Brunt and Stuart Dallas will be key to opening the door for strikers Josh Magennis (left) and Conor Washington while at the back the defence and goalkeeper Michael McGovern will want their seventh clean sheet out of eight in this campaign - a superb record.

The fans, of course, will play a massive role. The last time Northern Ireland played at Windsor in a World Cup qualifier was in March when Norway were defeated 2-0.

That's six months of noise ready and waiting to explode out from the stands.

The atmosphere will be electric and given the magnitude of the occasion for both sides, sparks could fly.

O'Neill will tell his team use the passion inside Windsor to their advantage, but he will demand they also stay cool, calm and collected in order to triumph.

While 18,000 members of the Green and White Army will be going crazy inside the stadium, there will be several high quality Northern Ireland footballers watching on television at home hoping for their team-mates to deliver once more.

Injured stars Liam Boyce, Jamie Ward, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart, all important players in O'Neill's squad, will be cheering on from afar.

McAuley and Ward hope to be back for next month's double header against Germany and Norway, but Watford defender Cathcart, like Boyce, will miss the rest of the qualifiers and potential play-off due to a serious knee injury. It is hoped when he returns Northern Ireland will be heading to the World Cup.

Belfast Telegraph

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