Northern Ireland to ‘have real go’ at Serbia
Nigel Worthington knows that a draw against Serbia next Friday night at Windsor Park won't be the end of the world.
In a clear message of intent, however, he has promised the fans that his Northern Ireland side won't play for a point in the crunch clash — they will be going for all three.
After the 4-0 victory over Faroe Islands a couple of weeks ago, when Paddy McCourt weaved his magic, Worthington knows we have now reached the business end of the qualifying series for the European Championships.
Italy look out of sight at the top of Group C so that leaves Northern Ireland, Serbia and Slovenia fighting it out for second spot.
Nothing is guaranteed, but our players and supporters are starting to fancy their chances of a couple of high pressure play-off games in November, possibly against the Republic of Ireland or even England.
Now wouldn't that be something?
Three victories from the remaining four matches — Serbia (h) Estonia (a), Estonia (h), Italy (a) — would definitely do it. If we're lucky seven points might suffice.
What is certain is that the September showdown with Serbia is vital. A home win would be ideal, a draw would keep us in the hunt, but a defeat would almost end the Euro 2012 finals dream.
Worthington refused to describe it as a “campaign defining” encounter yesterday when announcing his squad for the visit of the Serbs and a trip to Estonia four days later. He did agree though that it was a massive match and was delighted for once to be able to name what he considers “as near as damn it” his strongest panel.
West Brom's Chris Brunt makes a welcome return from suspension, veteran goalkeeper Maik Taylor is back after an injury lay-off and perhaps most important of all Rangers striker Kyle Lafferty is in, fit again and already firing home the goals for his club.
Lafferty has excelled on occasions under Worthington, most notably away to Sweden, Poland and the Faroe Islands. He also shook up Serbia in Belgrade for 45 minutes before injury ruled him out of the second-half.
Northern Ireland lost that match 2-1, but up until Lafferty's exit were ahead and looking strong.
“Kyle is a big player for us and it's great to have him back in the squad,” said Worthington.
“It was pleasing to see him score for Rangers against Motherwell at the weekend which will be good for his confidence.”
Worthington remarked that many of Lafferty's better games for his country have come on the road. It's a fair point. Windsor Park has yet to see the Fermanagh man at his devastating best. September 2 could be the perfect date for the Ibrox star.
While the Faroes were eventually comfortably dispatched, the previous home game with Slovenia, which ended in a scoreless draw, was seen as a chance lost by many Northern Ireland fans, feeling the game was there for the taking.
With Serbia superior opposition, even without the injured Manchester United skipper Nemanja Vidic, I wonder how the manager will approach the game.
“Firstly we have to set out to make sure that we don't lose the game and then we'll go and try to win it. I'll be telling my players to have a real go,” said Worthington, which will please those who stand — rarely do they sit — in the Kop.
The boss added: “We'll get tremendous support from our fans and if we can put in a performance like the one that saw us beat Poland at Windsor in our last campaign, we'll have a really good chance.”
And talking about Poland, it's there and in Ukraine that the Euro finals will be held next year.
Neither would be considered dream holiday destinations, but they'll seem like heaven for Northern Ireland followers if qualification is achieved.