Northern Ireland v Slovakia, 2010 World Cup qualifier, September 10, 2009
Northern Ireland are in historic touching distance of their first appearance at a World Cup final since their manager Nigel Worthington was part of the country’s Mexico 1986 effort.
Paired up in a group full of Eastern European heavyweights, it would have taken a brave punter to back Northern Ireland to reach South Africa. But with two home matches remaining, at home to group leaders Slovakia and then a final home game against the Czechs, not only can the Greens dream of the playoffs, but topping the group is tantalisingly tangible.
Against the Slovaks, 30-year-old David Healy (19/2 to score first and Ireland win), the country’s all-time leading goalscorer with an incredible 35 goals in 75 appearances who can hardly buy a game for Sunderland, will again lead the line. Strike-partner Kyle Lafferty (2/1 to score) is a doubt though, for the must-win game after being forced off on Saturday with an ankle injury. Should Lafferty miss out then Burnley striker Martin Paterson (2/1 to score), who replaced the Rangers man against Poland in their last match, will start.
For the Irish to beat the Slovaks it will be imperative that their defensive spine stay rock-solid. Between the sticks evergreen keeper Maik Taylor seems to defy the aging process to have only conceded seven goals throughout qualifying. Credit for Ireland’s defensive record also goes to centre-backs Aaron Hughes (25/1 to score) and Jonny Evans (33/1 to score the opener) who have made countless last-ditch tackles and goal-line clearances to keep their nation in contention.
Slovakia though are no mugs though, and after drawing 2-all with the Czechs on Saturday remain in pole position to win Group 3 and book their spot in South Africa.
The good news for the Irish is that Slovakia star player, Napoli forward Marek Hamsik, will be suspended for the match after being sent off in the match with the Czechs. Hamsik’s absence will be sorely missed by the visitors, but they will remain confident in their ability to score with strikers Filip Holosko (3/1 to score and Slovakia to win) and Stanislav Sestak (10/3 to score) able to come into the attack, supported by likes of Robert Vittek and Marek Cech breaking from midfield.
On the plus side for the Slovaks, Mainz midfielder Miroslav Karhan should return to the side after having missing last qualifier with an ankle injury.
The maxim “there are no easy games in international football” was made for matches like this. Northern Ireland have a brilliant home record in recent years, beating the likes of Spain and Sweden at Windsor Park, yet to lay claim to the three points against the Slovaks will be a nail-biting experience.
101predicts: Northern Ireland 2 - Slovakia 1
Full match odds here.