Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Serbia: Lafferty, McCourt losing race to be fit

For once Nigel Worthington and the Northern Ireland fans were not as one yesterday.

While boss Worthington preferred to discuss the players in his squad who are fully fit and ready to shake-up Serbia at Windsor Park tonight, every Northern Ireland fan was discussing the two players who are in a race against time to be fit.

And, as time goes by, it seems that it is likely to beat Kyle Lafferty and Paddy McCourt.

But, while Worthington would rather focus on the 11 men who will start this evening’s crucially important Euro 2012 qualifier, there is no hiding the fact that losing both men will be a blow.

McCourt is the new cult hero of the Green and White Army after his two-goal salvo in last month’s 4-0 win over the Faroe Islands.

Prior to that game Northern Ireland hadn’t scored a goal in the campaign when Lafferty wasn’t on the pitch.

Beating the Faroes without him is one thing, trying to do the same to Serbia while Lafferty watches from the stand will be much more difficult.

“I’d rather talk about players who are 100 per cent fit. We’ll focus on them and get behind them,” said Worthington, who is hoping — possibly against hope — that his two key players will recover in time.

“Time is starting to catch up a little bit. We’ll continue to work with them and see where we are at.

“The injury situations that they are, it’s become a little bit difficult.

“It’s just an unfortunate situation that the two boys picked up these knocks. Twenty-four hours to go, time is getting tight.”

Worthington has labelled Northern Ireland’s first-half performance against the Serbs in Belgrade as the best during his time in charge. Serbia stepped things up in the second 45 minutes, equalised and then kept the foot on the gas to claim victory.

The turnaround has been put down to the Serbs making changes in personnel and tactics. What seems to have been forgotten is that Lafferty didn’t come out for the second-half and that had as much impact on the game as anything Serbia coach Vladimir Petrovic did in the dressing room at half-time.

For the record McCourt only appeared in the 86th minute that night.

There is a positive for Northern Ireland though. Chris Brunt, whose left foot wreaked havoc in the Premier League last season with West Brom, is back after suspension. At his best he can open up a defence with one pass or cross and if tonight’s his night then it’ll be a good one for Northern Ireland.

“Chris Brunt is a big plus,” said Worthington.

“One because of his ability and two his stature as an individual. To have the likes of him back in the group is a real bonus for us.”

Without Lafferty’s power, strength and his overall physical presence in attack and McCourt’s undoubted and unpredictable talent it might be a case of trying to nick a 1-0 win — ugly or otherwise — and nobody would complain if that was the case.

“We want to try to nullify the Serbs, because there is a lot of ability in there. A lot of pace, a lot of strength,” said Worthington.

“We’ve go to do that and then go and play ourselves.

“We’ve proved it for 45 minutes that we are well capable of doing that.

“If we could do that for 90 minutes and win the game; fantastic.”

Worthington may play things down, trying to keep expectation at a realistic level, but he’s not stupid. He knows what three successive wins — first against Serbia and then in the back-to-back games against Estonia — will mean for his team.

It’ll be impossible for Serbia to pip Northern Ireland to second place in Group C if nine more points are collected. With Slovenia facing Italy and Serbia after tonight's game against Estonia it’ll be hard for them too.

Four wins — culminating in what would be an amazing victory in Italy — and Northern Ireland are in the play-offs.

The manager, however, is trying to keep his feet on the ground rather than letting the dream carry him away.

“I’m excited, but in a controlled way,” he said.

“I know the group that I’ve got, I know the quality that’s in the group.

“It’s about achieving and that’s what we want. There’s great desire there.”

Belfast Telegraph

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