|Don't get your hopes up - captain for the night Stephen Craigan look forward to his fiftieth cap.|
Will it be déja vu all over again for Northern Ireland in Maribor? Two years ago, in an Autumn World Cup game, Slovenia won 2-0 in the fortress city, condemning Nigel Worthington’s men to an uphill battle for qualification.
Back then, in a gloomy, angry post I condemned the manager for allowing his team to ’regress to the mean’. It’s a process which I contend is still ongoing.
The belief which Lawrie Sanchez instilled in his group of players, the discipline and the professionalism he inculcated, did not disappear immediately after Worthington took over. Instead it dissipated gradually, like sand running through the Ballymena man’s fingers.
Now, following seven matches without a goal and ten without a victory, the side is right back where it started when Sammy McIlroy - enthusiastic, likeable, but tactically naïve - resigned and Lawrie Sanchez took over.
Worthington’s team, meanwhile, is back in Maribor, for another away tie against Slovenia. The task this time, is to qualify for the European Championships in Ukraine and Poland. The prognosis is even grimmer than it was in 2008.
The Slovenes, as I reported after that first game, are muscular, competitive and difficult to beat. The little Ljudski Stadium becomes an intimidating arena whenever Slovenia plays at home. Despite the locals’ legendary hospitality off the field, Northern Ireland players can expect to be pelted with missiles, if previous experience is anything to go by.
Despite the difficult environment, despite Slovenia’s success in recent years, despite its record at home, the team is beatable. In the World Cup return at Windsor Park the Slovenes played well, but were beaten by a Warren Feeney goal. Northern Ireland even looked comfortable enough for 85 minutes in Maribor.
Times have changed since then though, and not for the better. Our personnel is largely the same, but confidence is lower and crucial players’ careers have not been on an upward trajectory.
There is mounting speculation that Worthington intends to start Feeney up front tonight, alongside the waning talisman, David Healy. If this rumour is substantiated the manager’s decision is brave and risky.
For all his previous heroics in a green shirt, Healy’s first team appearances in club football have been few and far between since 2008. For Northern Ireland he has looked sluggish and discouraged. More importantly, his last goal came four days after the 2-0 Maribor defeat, against San Marino.
Feeney enjoyed an excellent campaign last time round, doing his best to make up for a lack of goals from Healy. However he is recovering from a long term injury and has not yet hit the net for his new club, Oldham Athletic.
If Worthington picks the pair, he must leave out Kyle Lafferty, whose disciplinary problems are starting to undermine his talent and Martin Paterson, the pacy forward who is highly regarded by his club, Burnley, but is yet to make an impact for Northern Ireland.
The manager will also abandon his favoured 4-5-1 formation, which is unpopular with fans. A statement of intent certainly, but a gamble nevertheless.
As the text messages flow in from sunny Slovenia, where the faithful are already bolstering their pre-match confidence with the local brew, it is hard not to be infected by hope. But the cliché that it is the hope which kills is never truer than for a Northern Ireland supporter.
A point and a goal would represent a good start but there is precious little evidence to suggest that either is on the cards.