Belfast Telegraph

Worthington has big decisions to make for vital Serbian trip

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington is looking for a minimum of four points from the European Championship 2012 qualifiers against Serbia and Slovenia.

The forthcoming double header will go a long way to deciding where the Green and White Army will be spending their summer next year.

With five points out of nine to date, Worthington’s side have made a solid start, though it would have been superb with a victory in the Faroes, where only a disappointing draw was secured.

The good news is that Northern Ireland are in the mix in Group C. After Friday night’s game in Serbia and next Tuesday’s encounter at home to Slovenia, they must ensure they stay there.

Much of that will depend on Worthington’s tactics and selection. He has some tricky choices to make in all areas of the field.

GOALKEEPER

JOHNNY Tuffey played in the last international, that abject 3-0 friendly defeat to Scotland, but he won’t be starting this time.

Basically it’s a straight fight between the old and new.

Lee Camp, 26, has arrived on the scene with a strong reputation having been in impressive form for Nottingham Forest this season.

The former England under-21 ace waited for months while Fifa gave him clearance and now he’ll be hoping to show he should be Northern Ireland’s number one.

Maik Taylor has enjoyed that status for many years and he’ll be determined to hold on to it for a little while longer.

Taylor has hardly figured for the Birmingham first team this season, but the 39-year-old has an outstanding record for Northern Ireland and knows the defenders in front of him extremely well.

It’s a tough choice for Worthington because Taylor, who has won 87 caps, has rarely let him down, but Camp is the one playing on a regular basis.

In the past Lawrie Sanchez flirted with a rotation policy when Taylor and Roy Carroll were in the squad.

Don’t expect Worthington to go down that road.

Beacom verdict: I’d go for Taylor. His experience could be crucial in Belgrade.

I know sentiment is a curse word to managers, but the football romantic in me says that Taylor deserves to be treated with some class after the service he has given to the country in the last 12 years.

He has done nothing wrong in the qualifiers so far — actually he’s done a lot right — and, if fit, should face Serbia.

Camp, though, is a fine addition to the squad and provides much-needed competition for Taylor. Camp looks like being the future, but for now I believe Maik’s the man.

DEFENCE

In years to come Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart will be the centre-back pairing for Northern Ireland.

The pair, schooled at Old Trafford, certainly have the ability to become a successful partnership, but if Nigel Worthington were to throw them in at the heart of defence on Friday night it would be a major surprise.

He’s much more likely to go with the tried and tested Aaron Hughes and Stephen Craigan.

The majority of Northern Ireland’s big performances in recent times have come when Craigan and Hughes (pictured) have been the foundation.

Chris Baird could do a tidy job at right-back or left-back, but Worthington may use him elsewhere leaving Evans, Cathcart and Gareth McAuley fighting it out for the full-back slots.

Beacom verdict: Hughes and Craigan should be the centre-backs. Strong, steady and reliable and normally outstanding when they play together.

At right-back, I’d go for Gareth McAuley, one of our more consistent performers in the last couple of years, while at left-back it’s a straight choice between Jonny and Craig, even though the position doesn’t come naturally to either of them.

Cathcart was excellent, winning his first cap in the victory in Slovenia and has had a fine season with Blackpool, but Evans and his extra experience just gets the nod for me. The Manchester United ace will want to put that red card against Bolton out of his mind as quickly as possible. A clean sheet in Serbia would help.

MIDFIELD

In recent friendlies Worthington has tried a few different midfield combinations, so it will be interesting to see what he comes up with this time, especially with Steve Davis out injured for the Serbian clash.

That is a huge blow to the manager knowing that with an in form Davis his team had every chance of taking a grip in midfield, where Serbia are very dangerous.

Now he must plan without the Rangers ace. On the upside Sammy Clingan makes a welcome return to the squad after injury and Corry Evans, who scored the goal that defeated Slovenia in the campaign opener, is really shining on-loan at Hull.

Beacom’s verdict: I would have built the midfield around Davis. With a highly accomplished display in the Co-operative Insurance Cup final for Rangers against Celtic, he looked back to his best and could have been Worthington’s trump card in Serbia, especially with the canny Chris Baird offering protection beside him in the holding midfield role.

Now I’d go for Chris Brunt beside Baird. Brunt has shown with WBA that he can play anywhere in midfield and the extra responsibility might just inspire him.

On the flanks I’d play the reliable Grant McCann and the tricky Niall McGinn. Attack minded I know, but over the years I’ve been covering Northern Ireland I’ve always felt with a bit more adventure our pitiful away record could have been so much better.

Clingan’s composure and ability to pick a pass would be useful tools to bring on from the bench in the latter stages.

Paddy McCourt is another who could prove to be a super-sub.

FORWARDS

With every team that Worthington selects these days, there comes the David Healy question. Healy has not started the last three internationals. It’s going to be intriguing to see if that trend continues against a defence, severely weakened by injury to Nemanja Vidic.

Beacom’s verdict: I’ve always thought home or away, Northern Ireland play better in a 4-4-2 formation, no matter the opposition.

My two up front would be Kyle Lafferty and David Healy.

Our record goalscorer may not have hit the net for a while, but the move to Rangers has lifted Healy and I fancy him to end the barren spell sooner rather than later.

Along with Lafferty, who I believe is growing as an international, David will be buoyed by the Cup win for Rangers at the weekend.

Off the bench Warren Feeney will, as always, be ready to run his heart out while young Liam Boyce is a potential wild card.

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