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Star of Davis sparkles as NI all Whyte on night


By Paul Ferguson

Northern Ireland fans could get used to this.

For the second game in a row at Windsor Park, there was slick attacking play, controlled dominant displays and chances aplenty.

At a wonderful high tempo, this is Michael O'Neill's version of the beautiful game, and last night his players gave the perfect response to the cruel loss to Bosnia in the opening match of the Nations League.

And all produced just seconds after taking to the pitch following the Under-21s' incredible 2-1 win over Spain in Albacete.

While the result may not have been what the players, management and supporters wanted on Saturday, the performance has easily masked over that, and Northern Ireland football, following these two performances, is on a high.

Gazelle-style wingers rampant down the flanks, central midfielders carving up openings at will and strikers ready to pounce and move in for the kill.

The clinical finishing that was missing on Saturday was certainly evident in patches last night with the three goals - but they probably left another three out on the pitch.

While some of Northern Ireland's greatest victories down the years have come from soaking up pressure, hitting teams on the counter attack or having to use their prowess from the odd set piece, these last two commanding performances against Bosnia and Israel have made a pleasant change.

Jamal Lewis, shrewd at left back, showed all his athletic endeavour with his sprightly runs to compliment the class of Leeds United's Stuart Dallas, who once again excelled and was justly rewarded with a goal, Northern Ireland's second.

Paddy McNair, asked to play right back with a licence to get forward as much as possible, was much more aggressive in his approach, and his marauding advances put the Israelis on the ropes, while his hard and direct crossing was akin to top Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers firing in a laser touchdown pass to his wide receiver.

Israel certainly didn't see Steven Davis' opener coming from a low, hard pinpoint corner from McNair. Maybe if they watched Northern Ireland's stunning victory over Spain in September 2006, they would have realised Southampton man Davis was loitering on the edge of the box ready to fire home the opening, akin to David Healy's second goal against the Spanish 12 years ago.

It was a thunderous finish from the Northern Ireland captain and a message to Southampton manager Mark Hughes that he remains a world class talent.

While the centre back pairing of Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart looked totally composed, Middlesbrough's new £8million signing George Saville continues to excel alongside Davis in midfield, and Will Grigg tried his heart out up front on the Wigan man's first start at Windsor Park but he really missed his partner in crime Liam Boyce, who he linked up brilliantly with on Saturday against Bosnia.

But it was goals from former Crusaders old boys which gave Northern Ireland a comfortable lead and knocked the stuffing out of Israel.

Dallas took his goal well, and it was richly deserved following two of his finest performances in a green shirt, and then another student from the Irish League and fellow Hatchet Man graduated with honours on his Northern Ireland debut.

Gavin Whyte not only scored his first international goal, but the 22-year old also beat the lightning quick time of his pal Paul Smyth in the process. Former Linfield hotshot Smyth fired into the back of the net, in front of the Kop Stand, against South Korea with about his fourth touch and four minutes after being introduced into the fray. Whyte needed just one touch and 106 seconds.

As a Crusaders player, he often terrorised Linfield and his name would have been chanted in derogatory fashion around Windsor Park. Last night, his name was belted out with great delight and gusto.

This was a major confidence boosting result and for long periods the crowd was silent as they simply enjoyed Northern Ireland's attacking intent. They were spoilt.

There will be tougher nights to come for Northern Ireland with a huge Nations League away double header in Vienna and Sarajevo next month, however the fans can rejoice and be optimistic about their national team going forward.

There was a concern that after last year's World Cup play-off blow a high number of players would retire and the team would crumble.

But as proven in recent days Northern Ireland can once again be a force in European football. And last night, with a majestic display, the star of Davis shone brightly at Windsor Park.

Belfast Telegraph


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