Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland aiming for three points against Belarus - Saville

Northern Ireland's George Saville believes they can play better than they did against Estonia when they face Belarus tomorrow.

HONEST is the appropriate adjective for George Saville, on and off the pitch – but he knows when to hold his tongue too.

The Northern Ireland midfielder suggested that the penalty he won against Estonia on Thursday night wasn’t a clear-cut decision, although he also argued that justice was done after the hosts had been denied a first half spot-kick.

Left-back Jamal Lewis had a strong penalty claim around the half hour mark and Saville said: “The Jamal one was more of a penalty than mine, if I’m being honest!

“I was right behind that in the first half and it was a stone cold penalty. Things like that, at that sort of time, it would have been a different game if the referee had given that. At least justice was served and we got one in the second half.

“I just anticipated it, came from behind, he didn’t see me so I just nicked the ball and there was contact – you see that given sometimes, other times not given.”

Skipper Steven Davis converted that 75th minute penalty, to add to Niall McGinn’s well-worked opener around 20 minutes earlier, a goal which eased tensions among home supporters at Windsor Park.

NI should have scored at least once before the break, and could have added further goals, although Saville admitted that they’d played better and not won last autumn:

“It’s probably not the best performance we’ve had, I think we played much better in the Nations League. We played OK – and obviously getting the three points is more important.”

Estonia’s tactical approach, with five at the back and players detailed to contain Saville and Davis, was a tribute to the threat they felt the men in green posed, particularly those two midfielders.

“It was tough, they defended well and obviously man-marked us in midfield, stopped us playing. It was difficult for the likes of me and ‘Davo’ to get into the game. But once it opened up in the second half, they fatigued a little bit, and our quality showed.

“It was difficult, it was frustrating for me personally in that first half, couldn’t get going. The second half was a completely different game: we played better, moved the ball quicker, did things with a bit more urgency, and took our chances.

“We just needed to press a bit higher, win those second balls, and force them into errors, which they did make a couple of times. By the end of it we could have scored three or four.”

Fellow midfielder Paddy McNair missed a ‘sitter’ of a header in the 19th minute and Saville accepted that the chance conversion ratio must still improve:

“We’ve talked about it – obviously we need to take those chances. We had a few chances tonight, got into the final third a lot of times, and we just need a little bit more quality there to be a really good team.”

The first goal, when it came, clearly brought a sense of relief after the struggles to score late last year, despite creating plenty of openings in those Nations League matches, and in the friendly against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin:

“It felt good. You could feel the atmosphere getting a bit more relaxed, it freed us up a little bit…

“We know the start to this campaign was really important because of the fixtures we have later on in the year. It’s a really good start and we want to push on on Sunday and get another three points.”

Tomorrow is another game NI should win. Belarus earned promotion from League D in the Nations League, but their group did comprise Luxembourg, Moldova, and San Marino.

Saville accepts what is expected of him and his team-mates: “The object of this week is to get six points and we’ve done half the job. The second bit is on Sunday and it’s super-important to us to get six points going into the next bunch of games in June.”

Another victory might send Northern Ireland top of group, if the Netherlands don’t defeat Germany in Amsterdam, and that’s what Saville’s sights are on: “Exactly. It’s important for us to get four wins from these first four games [with a double-header away to Estonia and Belarus in June], going into the games against the bigger teams at the back end of the year”.

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