Jonny Evans says hard work is still to come for Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland are well placed to claim a play-off berth in the World Cup qualifiers, yet defender Jonny Evans has warned the biggest tests in Group C are still to come.
A 4-0 home defeat of Azerbaijan on Friday saw Michael O’Neill’s side displace the Azeris in second after four games in which they have taken seven points.
Although trips to Germany and the Czech Republic, the top two seeds, have already been ticked off the schedule, both of those nations will visit Windsor Park in 2017 while Northern Ireland still have two fixtures with Norway and the return game against Azerbaijan to negotiate.
With the Germans cruising towards the finals already, it is a case of so far, so good in the mini-division race for second and a possible play-off spot, but West Brom centre-back Evans thinks the road to Russia will get more treacherous.
“We talked about getting ourselves into second before the game; we wanted to make sure we were in second going into the four-month break,” he said.
“With Czech Republic winning too and Germany beating San Marino, the group is panning out as we expected it so far.
“There’s a long way to go. The way the group’s gone is as we’ve expected, it’s as we’ve wanted. We’ve got tough games coming up – Czech Republic at home, Norway away is obviously the last game and Germany at home – they’re going to be big games and the second part of this group is going to really, really tough.
“It’s probably going to be harder than the start we’ve had so we’ve put ourselves in a good position and it’s important to capitalise on that.”
Evans has been a big part of the defensive solidity in O’Neill’s ranks and the only goals they have conceded in this process have been to the brilliant Germans in Hanover last month.
He has had less of an impact at the other end, having failed to score in 41 internationals since his solitary Northern Irish goal against Poland in 2009, while club colleague Gareth McAuley was on target again on Friday night with a header from a Chris Brunt free-kick.
That took McAuley level with George Best and Norman Whiteside on nine goals for Northern Ireland and as much as he would love to be the one on the end of set-piece deliveries, Evans was quick to praise his central-defensive partner.
“I said after the game, ‘Is there any chance of one of them falling on my head?’,” Evans added.
“But Gareth has a great record from set-pieces, at club level as well, he’s fantastic and he really attacks the ball well. It’s a great asset for us.”
Meanwhile, Kyle Lafferty has urged his club manager Alex Neil to trust him to reignite Norwich’s Premier League promotion bid.
Having been ostracised since Neil’s appointment nearly two years ago, Lafferty found himself back in favour immediately before the international break, though his goal from the bench against Leeds was not enough to prevent the Canaries slipping to a third successive loss.
The Championship recess will have given Neil a contemplation period, and Lafferty provided food for thought with another strike on Friday to take his tally to five in a season where he has only accrued 305 minutes for club and country.
The 29-year-old had accepted his Norwich career was over after Euro 2016 but, unable to secure a loan move away on deadline day, he will remain until at least January and Lafferty is hopeful Neil will now back him to right their ship.
“Hopefully getting the goal for Norwich last week means I might be given more of a chance,” he said.
“Norwich is a team I want to play for and I do want to help them.”