Forget Italy . . . Northern Ireland must beat Faroe Islands
After the delight and euphoria surrounding Northern Ireland’s outstanding result against Italy on Friday night, comes a word of warning from a level-headed veteran in Nigel Worthington’s squad.
Northern Ireland have made their best start to a qualifying campaign in recent years by recording four points from their opening two games.
But only six weeks ago, Nigel Worthington’s team had gone well over a year without and win and hadn’t scored a goal in 363 days.
Victory over Slovenia in Maribor suddenly restored confidence in Northern Ireland and gave fans belief that qualification for Euro 2012 was possible.
However as Northern Ireland prepare for a crucial and must-win match against the Faroe Islands tomorrow afternoon in Toftir to move them on to seven points before the winter break, centre back Stephen Craigan is not buying into the hype and new high expectation level.
Northern Ireland have placed themselves into an excellent position for an assault on Poland and the Ukraine, but the 32-year-old, who will win his 52nd cap tomorrow night, insists nobody should be getting carried away.
Worthington’s men are expected to win tomorrow and win well. Craigan though urges caution.
“I think if we look back two months ago it’s well worth remembering the turmoil we were in when we hadn’t scored in so many games and hadn’t won in so many games,” admits Motherwell defender Craigan.
“I don’t think we are that good or that arrogant to think we are world beaters. Really, if you analyse both games in this qualifying campaign we haven’t played particularly well in games and our ball retention wasn’t what it could have been.
“Over two games we’ve created three or four chances so we haven’t made that great a leap forward over the period of two months.
“If we get ahead of ourselves we’ll get a slap in the face, so we need to be careful.”
Boss Worthington held a meeting last night in the team hotel, which incidentally they are sharing with the Faroes, and emphasized the fact that, despite a great start to the campaign, nothing has been achieved.
There is a huge amount of pressure on Northern Ireland to get a result tomorrow evening.
But Craigan is convinced he and his team-mates must forget the fact their opposition are ranked over 90 places below them in the FIFA listings and play their natural game, just like they would against Italy, Serbia and Slovenia.
If they do that, then goals will come, the defence will remain stubborn and Northern Ireland will come away from the north Atlantic with three points.
“We are in a position that I’ve never been in before where we have four points from our opening two games of a qualifying campaign,” concedes Comber-born Craigan.
“We have to make sure we don’t undo all the hard work and we have to remember what got us the four points.
“We didn’t get it by out-passing teams, playing silky football and having 15 chances per game. Unless we put ourselves about, work hard and not get carried away thinking we are world class players — and that’s not being disrespectful to any of our boys.
“We have quality players but our main quality is playing as a team and working really hard as a unit. Putting teams under pressure, working hard when we haven’t got the ball and we’ve seen if we don’t do that then we don’t get results.
“Nigel will do all he can by getting us prepared but it’s up to us on that pitch to play to our strengths.”
The Faroes, who are managed by former Republic chief Brian Kerr, have conceded 15 goals already in this qualifying campaign and haven’t been able to pick up a single point so far.
It is widely believed the Faroes will attempt to shut up shop to secure their first point of the campaign and put the proverbial “bus” in front of goal.
However Craigan anticipates Kerr will relish the chance to give Northern Ireland a bloody nose and that means he and his team-mates must be ready for a huge test.
“As of now we don’t know how they are going to play — whether they are going to play 10 men behind the ball?” says Craigan.
“I wouldn’t think so. I would think Brian Kerr will fancy his chances and try and get a result.
“He’ll talk it down and they’ll talk it down, probably like every game they play in, but I don’t think we are that good where we can start talking about changing our game plan. I don’t think we are that good. Our game plan is always the same.
“We are going to put teams under pressure, work hard, put ourselves about and hopefully the quality we have shines through.
“However, we really do have to be careful and learn from previous experiences. Hopefully we have. But there’s been warnings in games already this campaign. Not in our group but Scotland for instance had a stark reality check recently (Liechtenstein) so we must learn from that.”
Blackpool defender Craig Cathcart returned home yesterday after failing to recover from a back spasm he picked while playing against Liverpool last weekend. Apart from that, Worthington has no other major injury concerns.
The Northern Ireland chief has promised to make changes to freshen up the side to make sure they secure three points against Group C’s whipping boys.
But they would do well to heed Craigan’s advice and not take the win for granted.
Down the years, Northern Ireland have always struggled against so-called weaker opposition and indeed in 1991 the Faroes earned a remarkable 1-1 draw against Billy Bingham's men.
History must not be allowed to repeat itself