Belfast Telegraph

Mark McIntosh: A lat to do, but we must believe

Stroll around the quaint, picturesque streets of Riga and many things will catch your eye.

The Baltic state's capital city, famed in recent years for the ideal stag party experience, seems to have the lot - but Northern Ireland will have to leave Latvia with another maximum if they are to keep their realistic dreams of qualifying for Euro 2008 alive.

As a group of Northern Ireland's players stopped off in one of many Paris-style cafés for coffee on Thursday afternoon there was something special about the mood in the camp.

There has never been any doubt that this squad were a close-knit bunch but now there is a new air of confidence and a freshness of youth.

With youth comes a fearless ambition to succeed ? and Nigel Worthington's current group of players have that in abundance.

Players like Kyle Lafferty, Sammy Clingan and Jonny Evans have excelled on the international stage in the past 12 months but they are gunning for bigger and better things.

Publicly, the players always stated they had a chance of qualifying for Euro 2008 but now you can sense they really believe they are within touching distance of writing their names in history.

That is the carrot dangling in front of them and after the incredible opening half of the qualifying campaign, they are sitting proudly in second place behind leaders Sweden and ahead of the more fancied nations like Spain and Denmark.

But get too ahead of yourself and that is when you can let the guard down and disaster is only ever one mistake away.

The older, wiser heads in the squad have been quick to impress that on Worthington's young guns and they will be put to the test this evening in Latvia.

Liechtenstein were nobody's mugs but the hard work starts here.

Results in the opening seven games have given Worthington's players the perfect platform to become the first Northern Ireland squad to make it to the European Championships.

But tonight's crunch clash will give the players a true yard-stick as to where they could be sitting come November.

Latvia were beaten convincingly at Windsor Park even though the 1-0 score-line would suggest a tight game.

But Aleksandrs Starkovs' side will be a completely different proposition on their own ground.

Northern Ireland will have to be patient and not be gung-ho from the first whistle.

There is more than enough firepower up front, more than enough guile and creativity in midfield and more than enough ability at the back to beat Latvia.

But it only takes one off-night to ruin the dream and Worthington is well aware of that.

He has come to Latvia with his thoughts solely on getting a victory - anything else will not be good enough after getting into this position.

But Worthington is a shrewd character; he has his own private thoughts on what will be needed to take the Green and White Army to Austria and Switzerland but he is playing his cards close to his chest.

No one dared suggest the dream could come to an abrupt halt tonight but Worthington will have made contingency plans just in case the unthinkable happens.

Forget racking up goals tonight, a scrappy 1-0 win will do just as nicely, thank you very much.

But with the mixture of youth and experience at Northern Ireland's disposal, the blend seems to be a winning combination and there is no reason why the dream won't live on.

Belfast Telegraph


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