Northern Ireland's Jamal Lewis is aiming to knock out Bosnia
THE old(er) guard within the Northern Ireland camp may be seeking one last hurrah at an international tournament but Jamal Lewis is hoping for new experiences.
A first international knock-out match for him, a first victory over Bosnia & Herzegovina – and the penultimate step towards his first tournament involvement.
The new Newcastle United left-back, having switched from relegated Norwich City in the summer, after a mooted move to English champions Liverpool did not materialise, is ready to make another upgrade in his career.
The 22-year-old readily agrees that taking on the Bosnians in Sarajevo tonight is the biggest game of his international career so far:
"I've been looking forward to it for a while now. Since the game was announced, especially against Bosnia because I've played them twice with the team and definitely the one at home I don't know how we didn't get a result. Even away as well, that was unfortunate.
"They were two great performances from the team and I think we will bring a lot of confidence into the game. On a personal note I have sensed it around the camp since I've been here on Sunday that the boys are ready."
Northern Ireland, under previous boss Michael O'Neill, somehow lost both those Nations League meetings in autumn 2018, despite playing very well, especially in the first one at Windsor Park.
Of that 2-1 loss, Lewis recalls: "When we played them at home, I've not been part of many games where I've dominated a team that much, I felt that they couldn't really get out of their half – but somehow they managed to get a result."
In order to effect a better outcome, Lewis says NI need "a little bit of clinical edge. I remember in the away game I slipped for one of the goals, I made a slight error. Being clinical in both boxes, I think we can always do that.
"Especially with some of the performances I've been involved in, you're coming off the pitch thinking 'How have we not got something from that game?!'…
"We're going in with a lot of confidence, but knowing that we have to be clinical in both boxes, that'll tip us over the edge to get the result we want."
Lewis laughs a little when it's put to him that it seems that an away side might be expected to take a more cautious approach, responding:
"Yeah – maybe if we were playing a Germany or a Holland, but you have to take into consideration that they're a good national team but, especially from being on the pitch against them, there's no reason why we can't go toe to toe against this side.
"Of course, in hindsight, after the game you can say 'We could have done this or that differently', but I think we're a team that's best on the front foot, with everyone reading off the same page basically.
"When we're pressing teams, suffocating them, being the aggressors, that will allow us to play our game, put our stamp on the game. That's the message we're getting from the manager."
Feeling fully fit after a recent Achilles tendon problem, the flying left-back knows he'll be tested defensively by Bosnia's attackers:
"They obviously have some quality with Pjanic and Dzeko but overall we really do back ourselves to beat them, especially if we bring the intensity we know we can bring over 90 minutes. If we do that we can come out on top and do it quite convincingly."
That would line up a home decider for a place at the Euros, against either Slovakia or the Republic of Ireland, which Lewis would love:
"It would be great. This is the only game so far in my international career that will have a certain type of knockout factor to it so I am really looking forward to it. These are the types of games you want to play in at this level to showcase what you can do and be part of a successful group.
"Most of this group went to the last Euro finals. If I can be part of doing it this time it would be great. I was hoping we could be there this summer and with it being postponed I now have an eye on next summer with this team."
A maximum 2000 home spectators will be allowed into the Grbavica Stadium tonight, a prospect Lewis welcomes:
"It's felt like a long time since I played in front of fans. I don't really know what the effect of having a few thousand will be, whether it will be pointless or it would be an advantage.
"It could work for us by putting pressure on them, or it could give them a little bit of a boost. We'll just have to see, adapt to the situation. We have our game-plan and the confidence we have going into the game should be enough – and hopefully we can use that atmosphere itself.
"I'm one who enjoys playing away from home and I'm sure other boys do too. It just gives a general atmosphere, even though it may not be your fans, it gives you that extra adrenaline push."