Thursday, 3 September 2009

Formation might be the key to Paterson / Healy conundrum

One of the most galling experiences which can befall a Green and White foot soldier is to witness the rest of the Army mobilise, whilst he prepares to stay at home. Such is my fate this weekend, as Northern Ireland fans, including O’Neill, travel to Chorzow in numbers. Poland provides the World Cup opposition on Saturday evening.

The military metaphor is well established, but I sincerely hope that supporters, eager only to watch their team and enjoy a fun holiday, see no ‘action’. I’m confident that Polish and British authorities alike, in concert with fans’ groups, have put together sufficient safeguards to ensure that everyone returns home safely and without major incident.

Although I will witness this game only on television, it represents merely the first of a triumvirate of crucial matches which face Nigel Worthington and his team. Next Wednesday Northern Ireland takes on group leaders Slovakia, at Windsor Park, in a game which it is vital that we win.

Although an improbable away victory is needed in order to qualify (either in Poland, or in the Czech Republic), the priority for Worthington’s men must be to avoid defeat on Saturday evening. Four points across the course of the next six days would probably send the team to Prague, for the final qualifier, with a mathematical chance of going to South Africa.

Naturally, even taking a point in Chorzow comprises a stiff test for Northern Ireland. I still believe the key lies in central areas.

Perhaps the midfield conundrum facing the manager might be somewhat less tricky given the unavailability of Chris Brunt, whose cultured left boot will be missed, but whose questionable work-rate will not now hamper the team.

It is my opinion that Worthington should play Grant McCann in Brunt’s position, where his attacking prowess can be utilised, without compromising the team’s solidity. Davis and Clingan, who form Northern Ireland’s most talented central partnership, can then operate where they are most effective.

Damien Johnson might be asked to play, nominally, on the right, but he will be required to push in on occasions, in order to provide the compactness which the Ulstermen must show, if they are to prevent Poland scoring.

Although Nigel Worthington has been criticised for negativity when he has chosen to deploy only one striker in the past, there is a strong argument that, away from home against a strong outfit like Poland, it is a serious option. With this system, Niall McGinn could provide width, and Johnson could play as a conventional holding midfield player, behind the craft of Davis and Clingan.

If he does choose to set his team up in a four five one formation, Worthington might well offer Burnley striker, Martin Paterson, a start, ahead of Lafferty and Healy. Paterson has the fitness, pace and work-rate to harass the Polish defenders, notwithstanding his unconvincing performances, thus far, in a green shirt.

Otherwise the tested partnership of Healy and Lafferty will be asked to reprise its former glories. How the manager must wish that his job were complicated by the availability of Warren Feeney, this campaign’s most prolific marksman.

It is not just the Poland fans who will be hurting, after their visit to Belfast last spring. Their players will feel that they did not do themselves justice that evening. They will be out for revenge.

However, Northern Ireland’s defence has shown itself to be resilient in the past. It will be required to produce its most resolute performance to date in Chorzow, augmented by a fully functioning midfield. GAWA will pray that captain of Fulham and Northern Ireland, Aaron Hughes’ hesitancy at Aston Villa last Sunday, captured by the Match of the Day cameras, represents an uncharacteristic aberration.

Let’s just hope that we can get something out there and move on to the match against group leaders, Slovakia, with our chances intact.

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