Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis knows Azerbaijan victory can fire a strong warning to rivals

By Graham Luney

Steven Davis has called on his Northern Ireland team-mates to reproduce the spark and intensity against Azerbaijan tonight that swept aside San Marino in the 4-0 victory at Windsor Park last month.

There's more pressure on Michael O'Neill's side to deliver tonight as Azerbaijan have merged as a real threat in Group C and currently occupy that cherished runner-up spot.

Win and Northern Ireland go second in the group. Lose and O'Neill's side are six points adrift of Robert Prosinecki's side who have yet to concede a goal in their qualifying campaign.

There's a huge incentive for both sides to taste victory but inspired by the Windsor Park roar, Davis and co know they must rise to the occasion and send out a warning to rivals with aspirations of sealing a play-off place.

Davis' penalty opened the scoring in the 4-0 victory over San Marino but the captain oozed class throughout the match and he accepts an even better performance will be required to see off Azerbaijan.

"The most important thing is we have to play with the same intensity that we saw against San Marino and hopefully we can show our qualities again," said Davis who will win his 91st cap this evening.

"I think this will be a similar game. It will be a very similar approach from Azerbaijan. We've analysed how they set up, drop deep very early and are very comfortable in terms of letting other teams have possession.

"It's going to be up to us to break them down. With all due respect, we are going up against better opposition than San Marino so we have to be wary of threat they carry."

Securing second place in the group would be a fantastic way to finish what has been an incredible year for O'Neill and his men. No one predicted qualification for the Euro 2016 finals, let alone a last 16 finish.

That unforgettable taste of major tournament action has whetted the players' appetite for more but with Germany hot favourites to top Group C it's a fierce scrap to stay on their coattails. O'Neill has spoken of the importance of momentum and captain marvel Davis admits victory tonight could be a springboard to a strong finish in the qualifying campaign.

"Of course it's massive," he added. "As Michael touched on momentum in football is huge, it's a very important game for us. I don't think it will define where we will finish in the group but it puts us in position to be where we want to be. Being at home as well, it's important our home form is consistent and we pick up wins here as well. We're determined to go out and get a result leading into March for healthy position.

"But it's going to be a difficult game, they have made a very good start to the group and will be full of confidence.

"We will have to work hard to break them down because defensively they will be very well drilled."

O'Neill's men were unbeaten in Belfast during the Euro 2016 campaign and have won seven and lost none of their last nine at Windsor Park. Davis is hungry to keep that impressive record going.

Belfast Telegraph

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