Belfast Telegraph

Steven Davis labels Northern Ireland v Finland biggest in years

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland midfielder Steven Davis paused before answering the question. In Edinburgh earlier this week I asked the Southampton star just how big he felt Sunday's Euro 2016 qualifier was for the country he captains so well.

It was as if images of his 10 years as a full international suddenly went rushing through his mind.

The glorious wins over England and Spain and the embarrassing defeats against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in the last World Cup campaign.

Davis has experienced the full range of emotions playing 72 times for Northern Ireland, but when the answer came, and in the tone he relayed it, he left little doubt how monumental he felt the weekend Windsor Park encounter with Finland will be.

"I think it's a huge game for us in terms of which direction our campaign will take," he said.

"I don't want to put too much importance on any one game, but we all realise if we get a positive result on Sunday it will set us up for the remainder of the campaign.

"So, we will be 100% committed to getting the result we want."

Davis is not a man who says things for the sake of it.

Another in that category is Aaron Hughes.

The Brighton defender has been playing for Northern Ireland for 17 years and has won 95 caps. Here's his take on the Finland game.

"There has been a lot of talk about the importance of the match. That's due to the fact if we win it would put us in the position of a three horse race for qualification rather than four," said Hughes.

"On the flip side if they were to win, it throws them back in the mix and it becomes a real scramble for the top three places then.

"The result and the benefit of getting a good result in terms of where it will leave the group is why it is so big."

There you go then, Northern Ireland's two most experienced players with 167 appearances between them telling you just how huge this fixture is.

Michael O'Neill's men are second in Group F. Finland are fourth, five points behind. A home victory will mean Northern Ireland don't have to worry about the Finns overtaking them and only Hungary in third at present and group leaders Romania would be capable of stopping Davis, Hughes and co from securing a coveted top-two spot and qualifying automatically for the Euro 2016 finals.

That win in 2005 over England and stunning success over Spain a year later may have brought great joy to the country, but the Finland match could bring even more... a mighty step on the road to the business end of a major tournament.

Not since Northern Ireland defeated Denmark 2-1 on a wet, windy Belfast night in November 2007 to keep qualification hopes alive for Euro 2008 has there been a more important international at Windsor.

And as such it is the biggest match for the manager, who has some key calls to make.

Goalkeeper Roy Carroll, right back Conor McLaughlin, centre-back Gareth McAuley, midfielders Davis, Chris Baird and Oliver Norwood will all play with Jamie Ward racing forward to support Kyle Lafferty.

That leaves three spots to fill. At the back will O'Neill go with Hughes and McAuley, excellent in central defence in the campaign to date, or will Jonny Evans pair up with McAuley, with Hughes possibly moved to left-back? Big call.

Or perhaps it will be Chris Brunt at left-back. Or will the WBA ace make up the midfield five if Corry Evans and Niall McGinn aren't fit.

Crucial decisions. Trust the manager. He may have more chance of joining One Direction than winning a friendly, but in the Euro 2016 campaign he has got most things right.

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