After the weekend’s bitter disappointment, Northern Ireland have an opportunity to get our World Cup 2010 campaign up and running when we face the Czech Republic at Windsor Park tomorrow night. Once again we will be required to line up without influential front man Kyle Lafferty, and increasingly it looks as if George McCartney will be another absentee.
If McCartney misses out, even Nigel Worthington should have the tactical nous to reshape the back four in relatively effective fashion. Jonny Evans can move to left back, which apart from covering McCartney’s absence, also allows Hughes to resume his successful centre back partnership with Craigan. Chris Baird or Gareth McCauley would then be asked to take up the right back berth vacated by their captain.
The manager will probably choose McCauley, because I imagine he will think it foolhardy to pick a conventional 4-4-2 midfield, rather than selecting Baird as stopper. In fairness, on this occasion he might be right. With Damien Johnson injured, Northern Ireland do not possess a natural defensive midfielder. Although it would be positive to select Clingan and Davis as the central pairing, against an outfit like the Czechs, that might represent too much exposure for the defence.
Whichever solution Worthington favours for his midfield dilemma, what he must allow for is delivering support and service to Healy. A second striker must be selected and must be played in position. In addition, Brunt should be utilised on the left flank from the start, particularly in the absence of George McCartney at left back. If an attacking midfielder must be sacrificed, after his abject performance in Slovakia, I feel that player should be Gillespie. At his best, Gillespie offers pace and precision down the right flank, but I have doubts whether we will ever see Keith’s best at Windsor Park again. He is getting older, seemingly without acquiring any of the wisdom and experience which often compensate for declining pace. At Gillespie’s worst, we may as well play with 10 men.
Previous astonishing displays at Windsor Park not withstanding, I am pessimistic about this tie. I do not have confidence that Worthington can deliver tactical decisions sufficient to outwit a superior side. Northern Ireland are due a defeat at home. It is my fear that tomorrow night, after three remarkable years, normal service will be resumed.