Bale back for Wales as Northern Ireland face must-win game

 

Gareth Bale should continue his return from injury in Wales' home friendly with Australia tonight. The 22-year-old winger has impressed in pre-season for Tottenham Hotspur, but likely opponent Luke Wilkshire insisted that he was not intimidated by the prospect of facing the PFA Player of the Year.

Wilkshire, who plays for Dynamo Moscow, would not admit to any apprehension. "You don't go losing sleep over who you are coming up against," he said. Wilkshire can expect help, though, from Brett Emerton; and the Blackburn Rovers midfielder warned: "He is a fantastic player and one of the best natural wide men in the game. He has had a fantastic 12 months, so he is going to be tough opposition for us."

Bale had an exceptional season last year but it was ended early when a poor tackle from Blackpool's Charlie Adam ruptured his ankle ligaments on 7 May. After spending time in a protective boot, the Welshman has enjoyed a confident return in pre-season so far. In three friendlies against Orlando Pirates, Brighton and Hove Albion and Athletic Bilbao, Bale has set up four goals.

The only home nation playing competitive football this evening is Northern Ireland, who host the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park. If Nigel Worthington's side win, they will move ahead of Serbia into third place in Group C, just two points behind second-placed Slovenia. There will be no complacency in Belfast, though, after Northern Ireland's 1-1 draw in the Faroe Islands last October.

Gareth McAuley insisted that the players hoped to make up for that disappointment tonight. "The game in the Faroes was a low point," he said, "but if you ask Estonia about going there it's probably a low for them too," he said, referring to the Baltic side's 2-0 defeat in Toftir in June. "It wasn't great though. We have to ask ourselves the questions about going out there. Did we prepare right? Did we respect them enough? All those things we are looking at and making sure they are put right. The pressure is on to perform and get a result. We know it's a must-win, no bones about it."

Rangers midfielder Steven Davis voiced a similar warning. "This is a game we should be winning," he said, "but we all know football and especially international football, doesn't work like that. We are hopeful of getting all three points if we can go about our business in the right way. It's fair to say if we don't get all three points on Wednesday we can probably forget about qualifying."

With Warren Feeney, Kyle Lafferty and Chris Brunt all absent, attacking responsibility will rest upon veteran goalscorer David Healy. Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland will be without one of their leading strikers, as Kevin Doyle has returned to Wolverhampton Wanderers ahead of tonight's game with Croatia. Giovanni Trapattoni said yesterday that Doyle was "not 100 per cent fit" and so for the avoidance of risk Doyle has returned to Molineux. Doyle is not the Republic's only Premier League absentee; Stoke's Jon Walters and Marc Wilson, Wigan's James McCarthy and Everton's Seamus Coleman will all be missing from the Aviva Stadium tonight.

Scotland are hosting Denmark this evening, with Craig Levein hoping for useful preparation ahead of their next qualifiers. "This game has been picked to give us an equal test to what the Czech Republic will give us," he said. "I deliberately picked a tough fixture."

Manchester United's full-back Patrice Evra has pulled out of France's game against Chile with a knee injury.

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