Tonight’s the night. The night when Northern Ireland can move closer to qualifying for the European Championships. STEVEN BEACOM believes Nigel Worthington's side have a genuine chance of making it to the finals. Here he charts the team’s six steps to heaven.
1 September 2: Faroe Islands v Italy; Slovenia v Estonia; Northern Ireland v Serbia
Victory over Serbia would be one of the best results Northern Ireland have achieved in recent times.
Why? Well, the Serbs, even without notable absentees like Nemanja Vidic, are a quality outfit and there will be a large degree of pressure on the home team to get the job done.
Defeat would leave us with Everest to climb, a draw would mean needing results elsewhere to go our way while a win would provide the momentum to go on and claim second spot in Group C behind Italy and earn a play-off place.
The Windsor factor can play a big part and so too Kyle Lafferty, who tormented Serbia in Belgrade before going off injured.
Set pieces at both ends of the pitch will be crucial — and that’s where the towering Gareth McAuley (pictured), who scored against the Serbs earlier in the group, comes in.
Also it’s imperative that Inter Milan star Dejan Stankovic isn’t allowed to dictate. Chris Baird, one of our most consistent internationals, is the man to take care of him.
If the mercurial Stankovic is stopped and our own magic man Paddy McCourt shines, Windsor's in for a memorable evening.
2 September 6: Italy v Slovenia; Serbia v Faroe Islands; Estonia v Northern Ireland
Given that Estonia should enter this game on the back of a defeat to Slovenia, they will be ripe for the taking, especially with the Northern Ireland boys hopefully in confident mood after a positive result against Serbia.
I'm still trying to work out how Estonia won 3-1 in Serbia last October — a freak result if ever there was one — because they aren't up to much.
The Faroe Islands beating them illustrates that.
The last time we were in Tallinn, David Healy scored the winner.
What price our record goalscorer doing the same seven years on, with Italy doing us a favour by beating Slovenia.
3 October 7: Northern Ireland v Estonia; Serbia v Italy
Whisper it, but if all goes according to plan — and yes, I know with Northern Ireland things often go wrong — this could be the match when we reach the play-offs. With the atmosphere hyped up to the levels of THOSE victories over England and Spain, Estonia will fall apart. Lafferty's attacking menace combined with the midfield guile of Steve Davis, Chris Brunt, Grant McCann and Sammy Clingan should comfortably ensure maximum points.
4 October 11: Italy v Northern Ireland; Slovenia v Serbia
Best case scenario? By now we'll have collected three wins on the trot and guaranteed a play-off spot. If not and we need a result in Italy, the Northern Ireland players will have to produce the type of performance that made legends of our 1980s teams. It can be done, especially with the Italians playing a weakened team, having already qualified.
5 November 11/12 Euro 2012 Play-off (first leg). |Northern Ireland v ?????
Due to an inferior world ranking than the other likely play-off teams, Northern Ireland will host the first leg at Windsor, which will be louder and prouder than ever.
It's imperative not to concede an away goal, so Lee Camp, Craig Cathcart, Aaron Hughes, Jonny Evans and McAuley will be vital.
6 November 15 Euro 2012 Play-off (second leg). ????? v Northern Ireland
Wouldn't it be fun if the play-off was against England or the Republic of Ireland so that Nigel's boys could dance around Wembley or the Aviva Stadium having got the result required to reach the Euro finals. These play-offs can go to penalties — Healy scoring the deciding one is written in the stars. Go on boys, turn the dream into reality — starting tonight with a win over Serbia.