Belfast Telegraph

Slovenia v Northern Ireland: Heat on the home side, claims chilled-out Gareth McAuley

By Graham Luney

Gareth McAuley feels the pressure will be on Slovenia in Maribor this evening.

The hosts are going into their opening Euro 2012 qualifier on a high after an impressive World Cup adventure and the fans will expect a quick return to the big time.

Ipswich Town defender McAuley is expected to slot into the right-back role for Northern Ireland after shaking off a back injury that ruled him out of the Montenegro friendly.

“There will be pressure on them,” said the 30-year-old who should win his 22nd cap.

“Their fans have had a taste of South Africa and the pressure will be on them to produce again.

“We’re coming into their backyard so they’re going to be under pressure to win the game anyway. If we can frustrate them, hit them on the break, get an early goal, their fans might turn on them and we could use that to our advantage.

“We are feeling positive. We know we haven’t started the last couple of campaigns very well so there’s a determination to put that right.

“We know all about Slovenia but we’re confident in ourselves, if we do what we’re good at on the night then we can come away with a result.”

Northern Ireland’s friendly form has failed to inspire confidence but McAuley says the boys are ready for the serious business.

“Always in the qualifiers the lads seem to step up to the mark and bring their best game,” he added.

“I hope we can get the result and we’ve got to be positive to do that. The last game (in Montenegro) was at a terrible time really, with the leagues just started and some of the lads hadn’t even started playing.

“Although it was a defeat, we can see where things hadn’t worked and improve.”

McAuley plays in the heart of the Ipswich Town defence but on the international stage he’s familiar with various roles.

“I play centre back at my club, (that’s my) preferred position,” he added. “I play that at the club week in, week out. But most of the caps I’ve had at international level have been at right back. I can do the defensive side of it but getting forward is a different thing.”

McAuley and his team mates will have Stephen Craigan on their minds when they run out to face Slovenia.

The Motherwell skipper will be making his 50th appearance for his country and anything other than a performance worth celebrating would be a woefully inadequate tribute to a player who has gone in where it hurts while wearing the famous green jersey.

You have to be a special player to collect 50 Northern Ireland caps and the 33-year-old will sit proudly in that elite group of men who have past the half-century mark among the likes of Maik Taylor, Aaron Hughes, David Healy and now former international, Damien Johnson.

But Craigan has never relished the spotlight — football is a team game and he has always been more comfortable singing the praises of others such as his defensive partner Jonny Evans.

“Wearing the armband will be a proud moment for me but what really matters is the result,” said Craigan.

“With having Slovenia, Italy and Serbia to start it is tough and to give them any sort of a lead, it’s maybe tough to come back.

“Slovenia and Serbia will be buoyed by qualifying for the World Cup and Slovenia will have momentum.

“They are a slick side and for us to get a result we need 11 men and the subs doing well and be on the ball.”

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