Away form gives N Ireland hope

Northern Ireland meet Ukraine in Kiev tonight knowing that anything less than a victory will almost certainly mean the end of the road to France '98.

Saturday's goalless draw with Portugal in Belfast left the Irish with just five points from four home games in Group Nine. Only Germany are left to visit Windsor Park, while trips to Armenia, Albania and Portugal still lie ahead for Bryan Hamilton's team.

"At international level, you go out to play knowing that you need to win every single game - and in that respect nothing will change when we play Ukraine tomorrow," the Irish manager said yesterday. "But I must admit that we have come to the crunch stage of our qualifying programme and because of that the game takes on even more significance.

"I have said all along this group could go down to the wire and I still believe that. But there will be a lot of ground for us to make up if we don't take something home from this game, and that something has to be a win."

Ukraine, who beat Northern Ireland 1-0 in the opening game of the group in Belfast last August with a goal by Sergei Rebrov, will take over from Portugal at the top if they avoid defeat tonight. Only goal difference separates them from Artur Jorge's side, and they have two games in hand after a win and defeat against the Portuguese, the three points in Belfast and Saturday's 1-0 victory over Albania in neutral Spain, also courtesy of a Rebrov goal.

With Germany still overwhelming favourites to win the group, the contest seems to be for second place. "We have lost just once in our last 10 away matches and that was in Italy when they scored very early and very late in the game to beat us 2-0," Hamilton said.

Hamilton will remind his men how they put their qualifying campaign back on track by forcing a 1-1 draw in Germany, but first he must solve a welcome selection headache now that attacking midfielder Michael Hughes and versatile Kevin Horlock are free from suspension.

With Hamilton once again set to employ the three-man central defensive system that has made his side so difficult to breach, it is unlikely he will dispense with the services of Keith Gillespie, who produced one of his most effective performances in a green shirt on Saturday as right wing-back.

Horlock will probably come in for Ian Nolan with Steve Morrow, Gerry Taggart and Colin Hill providing the back line in front of Tommy Wright.

Steve Lomas, Jim Magilton and Neil Lennon will once again form the midfield engine room, with Hughes certain to be recalled at the expense of the young Blackpool striker James Quinn to play just behind Iain Dowie. A crowd of 90,000 is expected to pack the Republik Anski Stadium.

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