Northern Ireland’s Jonny Evans says he feels as if he is in the middle of his season after an injury-interrupted campaign for Leicester City.
The defender and his side face Cyprus in their second Nations League match on Sunday after a 1-0 loss to Greece.
Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough has been critical of a busy schedule of four matches in 10 days.
But Evans, 34, welcomed them as he said: “I am probably in a different position to a few of the boys.
“I had a long injury over the Christmas period and, for me, it kind of feels like I am hitting the middle of my own season.
“My break will probably come in November time when the Premier League breaks up for the World Cup. That will be like my end of the season, that’s the way I’m trying to look at it. I still feel like I am getting back to peak fitness.
“I probably played four games like these in a similar time frame towards the end of the season with the European games that I had with Leicester, so I feel like I am in a good place to play these games and that I will be better for it afterwards.”
Senior players must ‘put an arm around’ youngsters
Northern Ireland produced a low-key performance against the Greeks at Windsor Park on Thursday night, with Baraclough saying the players were rusty after losing to a Tasos Bakasetas goal in the 39th minute.
Conor Washington did not play in that match and has dropped out of the squad with an injury, leaving a 27-man squad for the matches in Larnaca on Sunday and away to Kosovo on Thursday, before they host Cyprus next Sunday.
There are four new call-ups in Baraclough youthful squad, with Liverpool’s 18-year-old Conor Bradley and fellow defender Paddy Lane, 21, starting against Greece and Manchester City midfielder Shea Charles, 18, coming off the bench for his debut.
Evans said he and other senior players in the squad need to look after the younger members as they aim to end a dreadful 11-match winless run in the Nations League.
“We have a lot of young players – I thought all the young players did very well on Thursday night,” said former Manchester United centre-back Evans.
“When the young players come into the squad, after a defeat it’s our job to put our arm around them and show them that we’re relaxed about it.
“It is a responsibility that we have. I know Ian has spoken about the really tight schedule but after a defeat you want to play the next game straight away and we are looking forward to this one.
“The game against Greece was a shock for us, we would have hoped for better in the game.
“It was frustrating, I think we realised it was a missed opportunity. We didn’t start the game well enough to give ourselves that opportunity and, in football, these moments can pass you by if you are not prepared and I think that is what happened.”
Text message from Healy to mark 95th cap
Defeat against Greece made it nine losses and two draws in the 11 matches Northern Ireland have played since the Nations League started – a record that led to them dropping into the third tier of the competition.
The match was Evans’ 95th Northern Ireland cap, moving him level with the country’s record goalscorer, David Healy, in joint-fourth on the appearance chart.
And Evans, who has a century of caps in his sights, revealed a nice message he got from his former team-mate ahead of the game.
“It was nice, he sent me a text message before the game and said ‘welcome to the exclusive 95 club’,” he added.
“I am pleased to be up there alongside him. He was my first room-mate when I first went away with Northern Ireland, so it was a nice moment to get my 95th cap.”