Friday, 27 March 2009

Sorry politicos, it's international football time again. Will Worthington decline continue? I suspect it will.

Fewer than thirty hours remain until Northern Ireland faces Poland at Windsor Park and still ‘Three Thousand Versts’ has not recorded its habitual pre-match lament of pessimism ‘assessing’ the team’s chances (or lack of them)! Do not fear, it’s not that I’ve been filled with overwhelming confidence for this World Cup clash. On the contrary, I’m quite sure that Nigel Worthington’s side will receive another walloping from the Poles tomorrow. Slovenia on Wednesday should be a different matter, but by then our hopes of qualifying for South Africa 2010 could be dead in the water.

If it were not enough that Poland fields a strong team which recorded a resounding 3-0 victory during its last visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland’s task has been made yet more difficult by the absence of a number of key players. The squad has been depleted both by injury and by costly suspensions incurred in the match against San Marino. A comfortable victory in that game may have put Northern Ireland joint second in the group, but how expensive could indiscipline by Steven Davis and George McCartney prove? Kyle Lafferty also picked up a second yellow card in Serravelle, but he subsequently succumbed to ankle ligament damage, which deems his suspension, retrospectively, rather irrelevant.

With Steven Davis, out goes Northern Ireland’s greatest source of creative guile. The Rangers’ midfielder offers a range of passing which his international team-mates will struggle to replicate. Sammy Clingan shoulders greater responsibility in Davis’ absence, but although the Norwich playmaker has undoubted ability, he has rather failed to reproduce the crafty football which marked his first few caps. If Northern Ireland is to offer any serious attacking threat, Clingan and his colleagues in midfield must show more than they have in recent outings. Grant McCann, Damien Johnson and Chris Brunt are likely to feature.

If Northern Ireland’s midfield does, somehow, manage to create chances, do we have the forwards to convert them into goals? It is the perennial question for our international teams. Lafferty’s unavailability is particularly unfortunate. His physical presence would have unsettled the Poles and his injury has intervened just as the Fermanagh man began to plunder goals regularly in Scotland. Martin Paterson would have been keen to make an impact in Lafferty’s absence. The Burnley striker’s injury is untimely. Therefore the pressure to score will once again rest disproportionately on David Healy’s shoulders. He has played little football for Sunderland this season and has looked out of sorts even in the green shirt of Northern Ireland, but Poland will see him as our main goal threat nevertheless. Healy should be partnered by Warren Feeney, who is industrious, and has in the past formed a productive partnership with his lordship from Killyleagh. Let’s hope that those two can see out the match, as Worthington’s attacking options consist of two obscure reserve players, from Sheffield United and Glasgow Rangers respectively.

Despite George McCartney’s suspension, defensively the manager still has resolute players to call upon. Let’s face it, they will be needed. I’d imagine our best chance of a result is holding out for 0-0 if these guys are in form. McCartney’s adventurous runs from full back will undoubtedly be missed, but Jonny Evans slots seamlessly enough into the left sided role. That leaves Aaron Hughes and Stephen Craigan to reprise their successful partnership in central defence. If that experienced pairing has an off day, Northern Ireland could be in serious trouble. McCauley or Baird will claim the number 2 shirt. As ever, Maik Taylor will be a busy man in goal.

Somehow, with opposing teams in Group 3 taking points off each other, Northern Ireland has remained in touch, despite appalling defeats by Slovenia and Slovakia. The position, however, flatters the team and its manager. Other sides have a game in hand, Northern Ireland has played San Marino twice and all the most difficult away matches lie ahead. To retain even the slenderest hope of qualifying, we must take four points out of these two impending home games. Realistically we need all six. Nothing I have seen since Nigel Worthington has become manager persuades me that we have the tactics or the belief to win both games.

Nevertheless, I will be at Windsor Park, screaming my lungs out for the lads and hoping for a miracle. Please Nigel, prove me wrong.


O'Neill said...

Oh ye of little faith!!!

Nope, I thought too we were on for a rare old hiding (on the field) I must admit. One of those nights when they just keep producing the results when you least expect it.

Anyhow.......I'm renting a tank to get me safely to the ground in Szczecin in September, still not up for it?;)!

Anonymous said...

"Nigel please prove me wring".

NI 3 Poland 2

Quad Erat Demonstrandum!