Will the trip end in cheers or tears?
Published 05/09/2007 | 11:31
Northern Ireland's footballers jetted off today for the Baltic state of Latvia with the hopes and prayers of a nation behind them.
Nigel Worthington's men are wonderfully placed in Euro 2008 qualifying Group F - two points behind leaders Sweden and one point ahead of third placed Spain.
The boys in green have a realistic chance of qualifying for their first ever European Championship finals ? not since 1995 when Bryan Hamilton's men just missed out of qualifying for the play-offs for Euro '96 have they been in such a great position.
But every player on that flight today was aware this eight-day away trip will conclude in either cheers or tears.
Failure to pick up six points from the matches against Latvia and Iceland will ultimately mean Northern Ireland's chances of qualifying for the finals in Austria and Switzerland become extremely slim, with the three remaining games against Sweden, Denmark and Spain.
Latvia are notoriously difficult to beat at home, however the side who reached the Euro 2004 finals - most of the aged players are still in the squad - are surprisingly rooted to the bottom of the group.
Boss Worthington has a few injury concerns ? Damien Johnson and Tony Capaldi are both out and Aaron Hughes will not be available for Latvia but should be fit to play in Iceland.
Teenage star Jonny Evans is fully recovered though after ankle ligament damage and is up for selection alongside Blackburn Rovers new boy Tony Kane.
Latvia will be without former Arsenal powerhouse defender Igors Stepanovs, who has been forced to pull out of the match through injury, but ex-Southampton star Marions Pahars is included in Aleksandrs Starkovs' squad, who are left with only pride to play for in this qualifying group.