Northern Ireland look to Steven Davis to make magic against Wales

Durable captain needs to counter pivotal influence of Wales linchpins Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale

Northern Ireland’s Steven Davis tracks Germany’s Jerome Boateng. Photograph: Presseye

Northern Ireland’s Steven Davis tracks Germany’s Jerome Boateng. Photograph: Presseye

 

The Welshman running through the likely Wales team to face Northern Ireland today named the back three, the midfield four and then reached the two players who sit behind the lone striker.

Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, ” he said, “they’re the two number 10s.”

Two number 10s. It’s a term to spark a degree of concern even among an Irish side known for the diligence of its defence. As Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill pointed out, that defence has had to deal with Cristiano Ronaldo before and Robert Lewandowski only three games ago. But if Bale and Ramsey click together, that’s potentially potent and decisive.

Wales manager Chris Coleman sighed when he was again asked about Bale – what more can he say? – but it was different when it came to Ramsey. Coleman was gushing.

“With Rambo, if you let him play with that imagination, he’s going to stand out,” Coleman said. “He’s going to do something spectacular.”

Wales-watchers say that Ramsey’s performance against Russia on Monday was his best in the national shirt. What this does aside from emphasising Wales’s attacking riches, is highlight the fact that Northern Ireland have no such playmaker. O’Neill’s number 10, the man wearing that jersey, is Kyle Lafferty, a traditional number 9.

The figure who comes closest is captain Steven Davis – number 8 – and if the Irish are to offer Wales more than defensive resistance, then Davis has to be as influential as either of Wales’s number 10s.

“Steven Davis is our Gareth Bale,” is an opinion Lafferty offered. How many would agree with that statement is uncertain, but then, as Lafferty added: “He just doesn’t get recognised for what he does. I remember in the qualifiers, we went unbeaten in the first three games and then we played Romania [without injured Davis]. There was something missing. We didn’t get a touch of the ball, we didn’t have any possession at all. It was difficult.

“When we played the Romanians at home it was completely different because Davo was in the team. We had the ball and created chances, and I would say that was down to him.”

Form of his life

The 31-year-old Southampton midfielder is in the form of his life. The Irish captain can never be called prolific – he scored once in 94 appearances between November 2013 and October 2015 – but over the past season he has added goalscoring to his attributes.

Haring forward from midfield, Davis has played off Lafferty at international level and scored twice the night Greece were beaten in Belfast – the game that secured qualification.

He also scored a couple for Southampton at White Hart Lane towards the end of the season; given the season before last Davis did not score at all in 47 appearances, something has changed.

“I don’t know if I’ve scored that many, I’ve scored a few more than I did previously,” he said in the stadium yesterday.

“It’s about getting opportunities and luckily they’ve gone in. As a midfielder, you always want to chip in, it’s about getting to the right spaces, hoping team-mates find you and when you get a chance, to put it away.

“I was lucky to score important goals in qualifying, I’m yet to get off the mark here but hopefully tomorrow night I can get myself up and running.

“This is the best experience in my football career and I don’t want it to end.”

Davis may see Lafferty ahead of him when he looks up this evening. Conor Washington was one of those drained after Germany.

Uefa statistics show Northern Ireland have had the least possession of the 24 teams at the Euros. This has never bothered O’Neill, but the manager could do with his captain dictating some of the game rather than always having to react to it. Not that O’Neill expects Wales to dominate as Poland and Germany did.

“They’re a counter-attacking team like us,” O’Neill said. “You might find neither of us cross the halfway line for first 10 minutes. The game will take care of itself. We have only conceded two goals in the tournament – against high-calibre opposition, the best.

“In qualifying only the Faroes had less possession than us, but we won the group and scored 16 goals, so we can deal with not having 60 per cent or 65 per cent possession.”

Another statistic O’Neill chose to chuck out was Uefa’s ranking of “simulation” – or diving.

“I was very pleased to see we’re bottom of the table for simulation, which shows we want to play the game in the right way and play within the rules,” O’Neill said, without having been asked about it.

Bale has been known to dive now and again.

At the same time O’Neill also mentioned that the referee is English – Martin Atkinson – and that he anticipates “a good old-fashioned British game tomorrow night”.

‘Cup-tie feel’

Scottish League

That produced laughter, but O’Neill was most serious when he said: “I want my team to play with loads of emotion and fully understand the significance of the game. When you look at our last two performances, you couldn’t question our heart from the first minute to the last. You can’t play without emotion.”

The prize is immense and could not have been foreseen when the draw was made: a place in the last eight.

The winners receive another €2.5 million for that. Should Northern Ireland upset predictions and do that, then the IFA will be €13 million wealthier than a few weeks ago.

It would their first win over Wales since 1980, when Noel Brotherston scored the only goal at Ninian Park, Cardiff. There were fewer than 13,000 at that; today there will be 48,000 at the Parc des Princes.

O’Neill said at the outset he wanted to create new history. Just being here today, his players are doing that.

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