Belfast Telegraph

Steven Davis: One Windsor win could be enough to land Euro 2020 spot for Northern Ireland

Steven Davis
Steven Davis

By Paul Ferguson in the Sunday Life

Optimistic skipper Steven Davis believes just one famous Windsor Park win in the autumn could fire Northern Ireland into the Euro 2020 finals.

After their opening four wins of the campaign, Michael O'Neill's men are proudly sitting at the top of Group C on 12 points.

However, the mighty Germany, who have played a game less and hammered Estonia 8-0 in midweek, are on the prowl just behind them on nine points.

The Netherlands, following their Nations League excursions during last week's international break, only have three points, but hold two games in hand on Northern Ireland.

It's mission accomplished, though, for O'Neill's side at the half way point of the qualifying series.

They set themselves a target of claiming four victories from home and away clashes with Estonia and Belarus and it was achieved in dramatic style - three late goals in their last three games.

Northern Ireland now have a platform to take on European superheavyweights Germany and Holland later this year.

The Germans are first to Belfast in September before Northern Ireland travel to Rotterdam to face the Oranje a month later.

There are two games in November to complete the campaign with a huge battle at Windsor as Holland travel to Belfast for the first time since they won a World Cup qualifying match 1-0 in October 1977, while Northern Ireland close out the group with a trip to Frankfurt.

Midfield master Davis has played in a host of Northern Ireland giantkillings over the years and he is confident this current side have it in them to claim a massive scalp.

He played the delicate pass in for David Healy to go on and score against England in 2005. A year later, he was in the side as the Spanish Armada were sunk by a Healy hat-trick at Windsor Park and then, during the same qualifying campaign for 2008 Euros, Scandinavian giants Sweden and Denmark were humbled by Davis and co.

"We targeted four wins from our opening four games to give ourselves an opportunity in this group come September," stressed 34 year-old Davis.

"You never know, we might get one of those shocks again that we've got in the past.

"To qualify for any major tournament, you have to get an unbelievable level of consistency. It's going to be very difficult with Holland and Germany to come, but we've given ourselves a chance now, that's all we wanted from these opening four games. You never know what can happen in football."

Germany, who beat the Netherlands in March, could put a further dent in Dutch qualification aspirations as they play Ronald Koeman's men in Hamburg during the first game of the international break in September - three days before they meet Northern Ireland in south Belfast. The Netherlands still have to travel to both Tallinn and Borisov, yet Davis would be expecting them to pick up maximum points there.

The Oranje haven't qualified for the last two major tournaments, - the 2016 Euros and 2018 World Cup in Russia - but they are a rejuvenated side under Koeman, having reached the Final of the Nations League last Sunday and, with world-class stars Virgil van Dijk, Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay in their ranks, they are sure to come storming back in Group C.

Therefore, if Northern Ireland were to finish ahead of the Netherlands it would be one of the greatest achievements in living memory.

"Ultimately it'd be our best achievement to date if we managed to get out of this group with the games to come," confessed Cullybackey man Davis.

"You never know, we go into it with a lot of belief and we have nothing to lose from here on."

Since the 2016 European Championship finals, Germany and Northern Ireland have played each other three times with the Die Mannschaft winning on each occasion.

The Germans, though, have only recently hit form again. They endured a torrid World Cup finals in Russia and were relegated from the top tier of the Nations League.

Coach Joachim Low has ditched some of the old guard such as Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller in favour of a fresh approach to the squad. It's still littered with Bundesliga stars and so far Low's actions have worked in this qualifying series.

But Davis is hoping the Germans are complacent due to their recent victories over Northern Ireland and that is when he and his fired-up team-mates can pounce.

"We've played the Germans a few times in recent years, we know how good they are and how much they test you but who knows?" says Davis, who has signed a new one-year contract at Rangers.

"This game coming up might be the one in which we get the result."

With slick touches, defence splitting balls and amazing ability to keep possession under pressure, Davis is usually considered Northern Ireland's best player on the pitch.

But during last week's away double header against Estonia and Belarus, he didn't come close to his best. He was grateful his team-mates came to the fore, especially the second half subs against Estonia - Conor Washington, Jordan Jones and Josh Magennis - and he is greatly encouraged that boss O'Neill now has a strong squad available to him with strength in depth across all the departments.

Davis adds: "We haven't always had that impact from the bench but we do now and, remember, there were players who could have added to our game but didn't get a chance over the two games as they were left on the bench.

"It's been a massive squad effort, all 27 have played their part.

"We've also shown a decent level of patience as well, kept trying to do the right things, and we got our rewards in the end.

"These games have taken a lot out of us but in both games we finished the stronger, so there are good legs and energy in the team. It's a pleasure to play with the boys."

Northern Ireland, through their never-say-die efforts, have given themselves a chance.

It will still take a monumental effort to eclipse either Germany or the Netherlands.

But Windsor Park in September and November is ready to be christened the new Theatre of Dreams.

After last year's Nations League agony, it would make a welcome change from the Theatre of Screams.

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