Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan: Classy Steven Davis is right at home mixing with world's best, says Michael O'Neill

N Ireland v Azerbaijan, Windsor Park: Friday, 7.45pm

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill believes his captain marvel Steven Davis can keep Northern Ireland on the road to Russia 2018.

The Southampton ace is a class act on and off the pitch and he's very much the heartbeat of a team which is hungry for more major tournament action.

After progressing to the last 16 at the Euro 2016 finals in France this summer, Northern Ireland have set their sights on a first World Cup finals appearance since 1986 and they will edge closer towards that goal with a victory at home to Azerbaijan on Friday night.

It promises to be a tense occasion, however, as the visitors are three points ahead of O'Neill's men in qualifying Group C and will be confident of stunning the hosts.

Attempting to qualify for a major tournament for the first time, Azerbaijan have become a more formidable force on the international stage, and wins over Norway and San Marino, combined with a 0-0 draw away to the Czech Republic, underlines the threat they pose.

The pressure is on Northern Ireland to stay in a healthy position to grasp a runner-up spot but O'Neill has faith in his troops to hold their nerve and finish the job.

With former Rangers and Aston Villa favourite Davis conducting the orchestra from midfield, the Green and White Army expect their side to hit the right notes, and another virtuoso performance from the 31-year-old in the 4-0 win over San Marino at Windsor Park last month offered a reminder that the Cullybackey man must be one of the greatest players ever to play for Northern Ireland.

O'Neill says fans can make their own judgments in that debate but there's no doubting how precious a gem the player is to his international boss.

"It's really up to other people to say where Steven should be on the list of great Northern Ireland players but the fact that I have picked him every time and made him captain tells a story," admitted the former Shamrock Rovers chief.

"I don't think I need to talk about what Steven means to me as a player, he has been a fantastic player and captain for me.

"He's a player who will go on to win 100 caps for his country and more and he's been part of a very special group of players.

"To captain your country at a major finals is a remarkable achievement. His enthusiasm for the game is very infectious amongst the squad and in many ways he sets the standard in terms of the training and approach.

"I'm just delighted he is playing. I watched him for Southampton against Chelsea and when you see him play in that company, against some of the best midfielders in the world, he certainly doesn't look out of place.

"I just hope he goes on as long as Aaron (Hughes) has done and his importance to the team in this campaign again is appreciated by everyone."

Davis has 90 caps while Hughes is now on 104 and counting. The defender is with the Kerala Blasters in India but was drafted in for the game against Germany and O'Neill knows he can rely on his elder statesman.

"The one thing about Aaron is he will never let you down," he added. "We couldn't play Aaron against the Czech Republic because his last game was against Wales in the Euros.

"He hadn't played a game so we had to wait until he got up to speed. But Aaron's experience alone was important. When you are asking players from a League One level to go in and play against the Germans, it was important we had Aaron for that game.

"If we had a problem with Jonny (Evans) or Gareth (McAuley), Aaron is an automatic replacement.

"It shows what it means for Aaron to play for Northern Ireland, the nature of the long travelling and leaving Hannover to play in India on the Friday night, he deserves an enormous amount of credit because he's always physically and mentally ready to play.

"I had no fears about using him against Germany and my thoughts are the same with these games (Croatia arrive for a friendly next Tuesday)."

Azerbaijan are the surprise package of the group and O'Neill knows his men must be patient to come out on top at Windsor.

He added: "They have played very deep in the games we have watched, home and away.

"They pose a much greater threat on the counter-attack than San Marino did and they are stronger defensively after keeping three clean sheets.

"We will have to be patient and it was the same scenario against San Marino.

"It makes a big difference if you can score early in the game. It will be tense and tight, with very little between the sides.

"I think we should have the greater possession, more than what we would normally have, but it's what we do with that possession and it's also making sure that we aren't in a situation where we have the ball but don't pose much of a threat.

"We have to play in the way that has been successful for us in the last few years."

Burton forward Jamie Ward is out after fracturing his wrist on Saturday against Barnsley. Injured Leeds midfielder Stuart Dallas has returned to his club for further treatment. No replacements have been called up at this stage.

The good news for O'Neill is that Chris Brunt and Will Grigg are in line for a return.

O'Neill was given a pre-game boost with Kyle Lafferty, who netted twice against San Marino, enjoying some rare action and a goal in the 3-2 defeat to Leeds United at the weekend.

"In the four years that I have been in charge it's not a new phenomenon," O'Neill said.

"I've always had big players that haven't been playing for their club.

"Kyle's situation is far from ideal and we have to be realistic in what we can expect. He can make a big impact and we'll assess his fitness and be realistic."

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