Belfast Telegraph

Worthy's underdogs must show real bite in Sweden

By Paul Ferguson

It's win or bust boys . . .

Tonight in the beautiful Swedish capital, Northern Ireland, who can mathematically still qualify for their first ever European Championship finals, dare not lose.

If they do, the dream is well and truly over.

Many of course already think that is the case.

It seems the only people who actually believe we can still make it to Austria and Switzerland are the players and management team. Even then, deep down most of the players realise a miracle would have to take place.

Not even the most passionate fan wearing rose tinted glasses is considering booking time off work for next June.

We are six points behind the joint leaders Sweden and Spain with only three games to go.

Therefore the expectation level has diminished and the pressure is off - the players can go out and express themselves.

And that seems to be when Northern Ireland are at their most dangerous.

The favourite tag does not suit us ? just look at what happened last month in Riga and Reykjavik. It's been a natural occurrence for as long as I can remember.

But when we are the underdog, that is when Northern Ireland come into our own. England, Portugal, Finland, Spain, Denmark and Sweden ? six matches where we excelled when we weren't given a hope of registering a decent result.

The problem now is, the big teams like the Group F leaders no longer take us for a soft touch. Sweden coach Lars Lagerback will have drilled into his team of superstars including Freddie Ljungberg, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Allback everything there is to know about David Healy and co. Sweden are still smarting from that embarrassing defeat at Windsor Park last March.

Sweden's star striker Ibrahimovic, who was marked out of the game in Belfast by Motherwell's Stephen Craigan, says he is desperate for revenge.

And the added bonus for Sweden of course is that they can seal their qualification to the Euro 2008 finals tonight with victory.

Northern Ireland though are not here in the city that is said to float on water for a sightseeing trip. Stunning as it is - I challenge you to find a more beautiful city in Europe - Worthington's men should not feel an ounce of remorse if they wreck Sweden's planned celebration party.

Certainly the travelling Green and White Army will have a party all of their own.

But if they are to achieve a minor miracle tonight they must do it the hard way without six key players ? Michael Duff, Chris Baird, Jonny Evans, Damien Johnson, Keith Gillespie and Warren Feeney.

Out of all those players Gillespie would be considered the biggest loss for his wing wizardry down the right. But judging by his last two performances for Northern Ireland we may change that opinion.

Ivan Sproule looks as though he will be given the nod ahead of Steve Jones to replace Gillespie and he in actual fact may be our secret weapon.

While the Swedes are big and strong in defence, they could be caught for pace and that's where flying machine Sproule comes into his own.

Once again the weight of a nation will be on the shoulders of goalscoring sensation David Healy. The Swedes are only too aware of him but they knew all about him in March after his exploits against Spain and just look what happened.

In a city which is enthused with so much architecture and culture, we can only hope Northern Ireland's European qualification charge is not prematurely confined to history.

For then it really would be Swede dreams and goodnight.

Belfast Telegraph


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