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World Cup 2018

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Why Jonny Evans enjoyed life as Northern Ireland's new man in the middle

 

By Paul Ferguson

They are the three Northern Ireland midfield musketeers in Central America.

A former Manchester United triumvirate with an attitude of all for one and one for all.

Led into battle by versatile skipper and makeshift midfielder Jonny Evans, brother Corry and Paddy McNair are preparing for yet another bruising battle against Costa Rica.

Against Panama on Wednesday at Estadio Rommel Fernandez during the 0-0 draw, it may have been billed as a festival of fun to say farewell to Los Canaleros, but Evans knew, having played with numerous Latin American players throughout his career, that the Panamanians would bring an aggressive edge to proceedings.

So it transpired, especially when he was the victim of a crude, late challenge by Anibal Godoy during the first half. A strong referee was required to clamp down on proceedings and issue yellow cards when deserved, but instead Costa Rica official Henry Bejarano chose to be extra lenient.

Evans doesn't expect any extra protection during matches on foreign climes but would like the referee to punish foul play so it acts as a deterrent during Sunday's game in San Jose.

Panama will take part in their first World Cup this month in Russia and their fans are excited at the prospect of taking on Belgium, England and Tunisia, but Evans hopes their experience isn't tarnished by a lack of discipline.

"We expected a physical battle," admitted Evans, who is set to win his 70th cap in San Jose.

"The Latin style is different to the European style and the way they referee, they do like to have a physical game. I've played with a few Latin players during my time and they all like to play a physical game.

"I played with the Da Silva brothers, Rafael and Fabio, from Brazil at Man United, along with Claudio Yacob at West Brom. They are always quite strong in the tackle.

"But all of us found it quite strange the way he refereed the game. I don't think he wanted to do anything. It was their farewell match and also a friendly, so I don't think he wanted to dish out yellows."

This Central American tour is the first time Evans has played in midfield for his country, although he has appeared in that position for West Brom.

But with regular captain Steven Davis, Ollie Norwood and George Saville unavailable, Evans has taken a leading role in the middle of the park.

"I've not played in midfield a lot," confirmed the 30-year-old, who is in demand this summer for a return to the Premier League following the Baggies' relegation.

"It was nice and a different experience for me. I haven't actually played a lot of football during the last three months, so I found the game in Panama very difficult physically and then with the heat. The second half was all about getting through the game, making sure we didn't lose the match.

"The heat dictated that too. It was nice to play alongside my brother and Paddy. We have that Manchester United connection going on having all come up through the ranks at Old Trafford. We've known each other a long, long time so it really was a great experience playing alongside them."

Northern Ireland are now in Costa Rica having made the short flight from Panama City.

San Jose is much more pleasant and cooler in temperature and, during yesterday morning's training session, recovery was the focus.

Evans stressed: "Plenty of ice baths and, after playing in the heat, they will be the most welcome ice baths we've ever had.

"We're all looking forward to the game but we must also get the recovery right. Those who didn't play will do some gym work, we might do some work in the pool and then we all train again on the pitch.

"For the younger players, especially those just coming in, it's important to prepare in the right way for these types of games. But even those with experience, say like Paddy who has been in and out with injury, he needs to be physically ready for the next game so that he can stake his claim."

Northern Ireland, likely to field the same starting XI that faced Panama, know they face a stiffer test at the 35,000-capacity Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica on Sunday when three-time Champions League winner Keylor Navas could be between the sticks and stars Bryan Ruiz (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Gamboa (Celtic), Bryan Oviedo (Sunderland) and Joel Campbell (Real Betis) are set to play in their final home match before heading for Russia via games in England and Belgium.

Costa Rica reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Brazil four years ago, but due to inconsistent form during the last two years, they aren't expected to be a force in Russia later this month.

Northern Ireland and the midfield triumvirate will be aiming to prove that is the case and end this Central American tour having gone unbeaten against three World Cup finalists in 2018.

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Our coverage of Northern Ireland's tour to play Panama and Costa Rica is brought to you in conjunction with BetMcLean.

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