Euro 2012: Northern Ireland can still qualify, says Brunt
Chris Brunt has stressed the importance of the double header against Serbia and Estonia by declaring the next two games will determine whether Northern Ireland make it to next year’s Euro 2012 finals.
It is certainly getting to crunch time in Group C with Nigel Worthington’s men in contention to qualify for their first major championship since 1986.
Back then Worthington played for his country in the World Cup finals. Now the plan is to guide Northern Ireland to the glamour stages of the 2012 European Championships.
Top spot in the group and automatic qualification looks too much to ask, with Italy favourites for that, but second place and the play-off that comes with it is up for grabs.
One of Northern Ireland, Serbia or Slovenia will clinch it.
Worthington’s men would put themselves in prime position with a victory at home to Serbia on Friday and another in Estonia next Tuesday.
After missing the 4-0 success over the Faroes Islands through suspension, Brunt, a high class performer in the Premier League with West Bromwich Albion, is back in the international fold this week and will be a key figure in achieving the dream scenario of six points out of six.
“We have definitely given ourselves a chance of getting somewhere in this group,” said Brunt.
“The next two games for us, against Serbia and Estonia, are going to be crucial.
“If we can deliver in those and get victories in both we would be in a strong position to get a play-off place.
“The matches with Serbia and Estonia are massive in terms of our campaign. They will go a long way to determine whether we can push for a place in the Euro finals.”
Brunt has by and large been satisfied with how the team has performed in the European qualifying campaign to date, which started with a win in Slovenia 12 months ago, but it’s clear that a 1-1 draw in the Faroe Islands a month later still irks.
“The Faroes Islands game away from home let us down,” he said. “We should have taken all three points from that game.
“Apart from that one — which was poor — our performances have been pretty good in the group.
“We have defended well and haven’t conceded a lot of goals, which is vital in tight games.”
While Worthington is likely to turn to experience for the visit of Serbia, Brunt has been encouraged in recent years to see so many youngsters entering the senior ranks.
“It is always going to be difficult for Northern Ireland to compete with bigger nations, but in my time we have definitely moved forward,” says the West Brom skipper.
“A lot of young lads have been brought into the squad, which will stand us in good stead for the future.”
The recent past hasn’t been too pleasurable for Brunt, with his club losing all three of their opening matches in the Premier League season.
The Baggies have been beaten by late goals from Manchester United, Chelsea and Stoke City in a difficult start to the campaign.
“We knew it was going to be a tough start,” said the 26-year-old.
“But we could have got something out of all three of the games — that is the most disappointing thing from our point of view, to put so much in to it and come away with nothing to show for it.”
Last season was Brunt’s best in the Premier League and he was linked with a move to top clubs including Liverpool, but the attention did not affect his game.
He said: “If someone is playing well consistently you see the stories where they are linked with other clubs. It didn’t really affect me.
“I enjoy it at West Brom and have developed as a player since moving from Sheffield Wednesday.”