Belfast Telegraph

How are Northern Ireland shaping up for Italy at Windsor Park?

By Graham Luney

What do Fernando Torres and Kyle Lafferty have in common?

Quite a lot actually, though I’m sure the Spanish World Cup winner wishes he was playing like the Kesh man at the moment.

Things change quickly in football and little surprises us anymore — but among the constant realities is the fact that even the best players in the world are not immune from a lack of confidence.

And when your confidence goes — for whatever reason — it can be hard to get back.

Strikers, in particular, need to be playing with a smile on their face.

But they can only enjoy their football if the service they are getting is adequate and they are finding the back of the net.

Lafferty has deservedly been hammered by critics in the past and now it is Torres’ turn to face the sad music.

The Liverpool striker probably needs another defeat to Northern Ireland at Windsor Park — like the one he suffered on September 6, 2006 — to explode into life.

But Lafferty’s first hat-trick for Rangers in the Co-operative Insurance Cup this week is wonderful news for Northern Ireland fans.

If Nigel Worthington’s men are to take any points off the big guns in Euro 2012 qualifying Group C, they will need players like the 23-year-old on top of their game.

Lafferty’s confidence has taken a battering — he was sent off against Hibernian in August — and the time has come for him to deliver at Ibrox after hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons.

His performance in Montenegro — when he probably escaped a sending off because it wasn’t a competitive fixture — underlined his fragile temperament.

But when in-form, like he was in the 1-1 draw in Poland, Lafferty is an awesome, frightening sight. Italy should be afraid.

Elsewhere the signs are encouraging. Warren Feeney’s ankle injury is just a slight twist and he should be fit to face the Azzurri.

Worthington now has a selection headache in attack — reward David Healy and Feeney for their endeavours in Slovenia or turn to Lafferty. It would be madness to overlook the big man while he’s in this form.

Another Northern Ireland player riding the crest of a wave is Gareth McAuley who helped fire Ipswich Town into the fourth round of the Carling Cup by finding the back of the Millwall net.

Chris Baird, who was outstanding against Slovenia, was struggling to get into the Fulham side at the start of the season but a fresh three-year-deal will have put an extra spring in his step.

The form of West Brom’s Chris Brunt is also a joy to behold as the Baggies bring a healthy dose of fighting spirit to the Premier League.

But the bottom line is that many of these players have been down this road before. Italy should be respected but not feared.

Maik Taylor, Aaron Hughes, Stephen Craigan, Jonny Evans, Sammy Clingan, Steven Davis, Chris Baird, David Healy, Warren Feeney and Kyle Lafferty all helped Northern Ireland humble Spain at Windsor Park.

Gareth McAuley and Grant McCann witnessed it with their own eyes from the bench.

The players who stunned Slovenia are likely to be unleashed on Spain with two possible changes.

Jonny Evans could replace rookie Craig Cathcart at left-back — despite his heroics in Maribor — while Lafferty could replace either Healy or Feeney.

Even though Italy are formidable opponents, 4-4-2 is the right approach.

The one note of caution is the reality that Healy’s Euro 2008 heroics — he netted a stunning hat-trick against Spain — are unlikely to be repeated given his Sunderland frustration.

But forget El Nino and even Healy — perhaps we will have a new goalscoring hero in Lafferty.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph