Belfast Telegraph

Hughes applies some pressure

By Paul Ferguson

If the Northern Ireland players practice what they preach then they'll be celebrating yet another famous and stunning win on Wednesday night.

For amazingly after two disastrous results in Riga and Reykjavik last month an air of optimism floated around Stockholm yesterday as the players prepared for their crucial must win game against Sweden.

Gone was the despondency of Iceland.

The Group F leaders may have world class players such as Freddie Ljungberg, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Christian Wilhelmsson, Olof Mellberg and Marcus Allback at their disposal, but returning captain Aaron Hughes is convinced Northern Ireland, who will be without six key players, will not meet their European qualifying " Waterloo" in Abba's homeland.

The Fulham centre half has missed the last three internationals through injury but is now back to steady the ship alongside Stephen Craigan, who will also be reinstated in Nigel Worthington's team for the clash at the Rasunda Stadium.

And he is ready to lead by example and points to the fact Northern Ireland's record against the top teams is exemplary and therefore they should not be ruled out of qualifying for their first ever European Championships.

"I'm itching to play for Northern Ireland again. It was so difficult to sit at home especially during the last two games wanting to be out there and helping the boys out," admitted Hughes last night.

" Obviously the results didn't go our way which was disappointing but it's just one of those things. It's not over and we all realise that.

" It looks as though we'll need to win all three games or two wins and a draw which we are more than capable of doing.

"We've done it before when we beat Spain and Sweden earlier in this group and maybe it's at times like this when we are at our best - when people write us off.

"I don't know why but when there's no pressure on us we seem to be able to go out there and perform.

" All the pressure is on Sweden - they are at home and are the bigger side. We've been written off and told "you've had a good run, but it's not meant to be". We don't believe that and it's not over yet for us."

Northern Ireland, if they are to cause yet another major upset against the imperious Swedes, will need to re-write the form guide.

For in Northern Ireland's last 26 qualifiers, World Cup and European Championships, they have only won two games - against football minnows Malta and Liechtenstein.

Hughes though believes now is the time for Northern Ireland's away fortunes to change.

He says: "It's one of those things that starts to stick after a while ? I think it's two wins in God knows how many qualifiers.

"Maybe it just proves how difficult it is to win a game away from home and a lot of teams struggle when they go to the smaller nations like Latvia - it's not just us. The performances haven't been that bad away from home ? we've been improving and hopefully now we can turn those decent performances into victories.

" We're not going to worry about it ? we'll just go out and play the game and certainly not concern ourselves with statistics."

Belfast Telegraph

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