Belfast Telegraph

Come on Northern Ireland . . . and Latvia

By Steven Beacom

The Northern Ireland players woke up this morning ready for the game of their lives.

Not since the 1986 World Cup finals has our wee country played a bigger match than the one that will take place in Gran Canaria tonight.

The bottom line is, after the most dramatic qualifying campaign ever, Northern Ireland need to beat Spain and hope that Latvia win in Sweden in order for David Healy and the boys to reach the Euro 2008 finals.

Can you imagine the party here and back home if the dream becomes a reality?

Everywhere you go in this resort you see green shirts. Officially 4,000 fans have travelled. And the rest.

The Green and White Army have been magnificent in this campaign and are determined to see it out in style.

The heroic players feel the same way.

It has been a roller coaster ride but, thankfully, there have been many more highs than lows.

And although Nigel Worthington's side are up against it, even with the Spanish playing an experimental side, there is a genuine sense in the Northern Ireland camp that it is their destiny to qualify.

Since the campaign started in horrific fashion with a 3-0 home defeat to Iceland, the team has shown immense character to beat the likes of Spain, Sweden and Denmark in Belfast and draw in Copenhagen and Stockholm.

Indeed, but for those nightmare losses in Latvia and Iceland, we would be there by now.

Enough about that. Let's stay positive, just like the players.

The reliable Maik Taylor will be in goal with captain fantastic Aaron Hughes and the resolute Stephen Craigan at the heart of the defence. Either side will be Gareth McAuley and probably Chris Baird. They may be playing out of position, but they won't let the side down.

The classy combination of Steve Davis and Sammy Clingan will endeavour to control central midfield and create openings for Chris Brunt and Ivan Sproule to benefit from on the wings. Brunt's crossing ability and Sproule's pace will be vital if Northern Ireland are to score the goals required.

After his exceptional second half performance in Saturday's victory over Denmark, Warren Feeney deserves the nod up front with Kyle Lafferty a more than useful man to have on the bench.

And, then, there is Healy. King David hasn't just been Northern Ireland's man of the tournament. He has been man of the tournament period.

For years 13 was our national scoring record. He has hit that many in one qualifying campaign - a European Championship best.

When you think of the quality of his goals, it is no wonder he is considered such an iconic figure amongst the fans.

The Spanish fear him after his wonderful hat-trick against them in the 3-2 win at Windsor last year. Let's play on those fears and get the ball to Healy. He'll do the rest.

After years of being out of the running for qualification halfway through a campaign, it is brilliant that Northern Ireland enter their last game with everything on the line.

We would all love to see them do it.

And, if they do, it really couldn't happen to a nicer group of lads.

Good luck boys and good luck Latvia.

Northern Ireland have beaten Spain twice before - in 1982 and 2006. Let's add 2007 to the list.

Kick-off tonight is 7pm. Here's to that party starting a couple of hours later.

Belfast Telegraph


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