Belfast Telegraph

Steven Davis leads way as always, but captain marvel will need more help in Germany

N Ireland 4-0 San Marino

By Steven Beacom

Some of Northern Ireland's most famous names were out in force as the revamped Windsor Park was officially opened.

Football heroes Pat Jennings, Harry Gregg, Peter McParland, Gerry Armstrong, Sammy McIlroy and Mal Donaghy were invited guests, while current boxing World Champion Carl Frampton and former snooker World Champion Dennis Taylor took their place in the 'Lap of Legends' around the pitch on Saturday night to mark the occasion.

Olympic golden girl Dame Mary Peters and Paralympic sensations Kelly Gallagher and Bethany Firth were also involved in the celebration, along with an array of local television stars and Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody.

Holywood's favourite son Rory McIlroy was in the stands, as was Holland icon Marco van Basten, who had arrived at Windsor as part of the Fifa delegation led by new President Gianni Infantino.

Yet if you asked the 18,234 Northern Ireland fans - the largest crowd at Windsor since 1988 - on the night their team took on San Marino in a World Cup qualifier who the biggest VIP was, the vast majority would have rolled out another name.

Steven Davis. Captain fantastic. Not for the first time in his international life, the legendary number eight led the way.

He probed, passed and tried to penetrate all night, inspiring others in green on and off the turf.

It was fitting that the Southampton star scored the first international goal at the new look Windsor.

Exactly 12 months on from a dynamic double in Belfast against Greece to take Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals in France, Davis again netted on the big occasion.

Early on Michael O'Neill's men struggled to break down the San Marino part-timers, but with Davis looking head and shoulders above anyone else you knew his influence would tell.

With 26 minutes gone, Josh Magennis was bundled over in the box trying to connect with an inviting Shane Ferguson cross. Davis collected the ball and calmly slotted home from the penalty spot despite the best efforts of visiting goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini.

From that moment on there was no doubt who the victors would be. The only question was how many goals Northern Ireland would end up with, especially when Mirko Palazzi was red carded moments after the break for a crazy challenge on goalkeeper Michael McGovern.

The answer was four, with Kyle Lafferty coming off the bench in the second half to score a brace.

No surprise that Davis was instrumental in both of the striker's goals.

On 79 minutes he played a clever pass allowing Ferguson to deliver another fine left wing cross which Lafferty caressed into the net, and in injury time the skipper showed splendid skill and his unselfish nature to lay a second goal on a plate for his former Rangers team-mate. Lafferty, hungry for goals and game time, gobbled it up from close range with the last kick of the match.

In between Jamie Ward had made it 3-0 with a conclusive strike inside the area, latching on to Lafferty's flick from Ferguson's classy left boot.

Lafferty only arrived on the scene with 72 minutes gone and ended up with two goals and an assist. Impressive, but like everyone else, the Fermanagh man knew who the star of the show was.

"It was great that Davo got the first goal in the new stadium," said Lafferty of his captain.

"It was a year to the day that he basically took us through to the Euros. He has had a successful time being the captain and I don't think there's a guy in the team who deserved it more than him.

"Getting another goal to his name was great for Davo and he also laid one on for me at the end. He could have shot but passed it to me to score.

"Everyone knows what Davo's game is all about. He's an unselfish player and a team player and that's the mentality we have in the group."

That group will have to step it up tomorrow night in Germany.

The scoreline against San Marino was comprehensive thanks to that late burst of goals, but it's clear that some players will need to up their game considerably when the World Champions are the opponents in Hannover. Davis will need more help than he received at times against San Marino.

On Saturday night Northern Ireland had 70% possession and made 452 passes, completing 425 of them.

Tomorrow O'Neill's side will be cast in the minnow's role against Germany.

In the Euro finals in France when Joachim Low's team won 1-0 in the group stages, Northern Ireland had only 29% of the ball, making 112 successful passes from the 176 they tried.

It will be a long evening for O'Neill's team, but if they can all reach the standards set by their skipper they will have a chance of taking something from the game.

The final words go to Davis.

He said: "Beating San Marino will not have any impact on the Germany game.

"Of course we were delighted to get the win but it's going to be a completely different match on Tuesday.

"Germany obviously have a lot of quality and will be big favourites to win but for us it is a chance to test ourselves against some of the best players in the world. We will embrace that challenge."

NORTHERN IRELAND: McGovern, McLaughlin (McNair 76'), McAuley, J Evans, Ferguson, McGinn, Davis, Norwood, Dallas (Washington 65'), Ward, Magennis (Lafferty 72'). Unused subs: Carson, Mannus, Hodson, Paton, C Evans, McGivern, Hughes, Lund, Flanagan. Goals: Davis (26'), Lafferty (79', 90'), Ward (85').

SAN MARINO: A Simoncini, Berardi, F Vitaioli, D Simoncini, Della Valle, Palazzi, Hirsch (Cesarini 55'), Tosi, Coppini (Golinucci 70'), M Vitaioli, Stefanelli (Zafferani 85'). Unused subs: Benedettini, Manzaroli, Valentini, Selva, Censoni, Rinaldi, Bianchi, Berretti, Mazza. Red card: Palazzi (49').

Referee: Istvan Kovacs (Romania)

Man of the match: Steven Davis

Match rating: 6/10

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