Second in Group F, Northern Ireland have flown to the Faroe Islands knowing that history is within their grasp. Win in Torshavn, then against Hungary on Monday night in Belfast, and the Irish will have reached their first finals since the World Cup of 1986.
That is the perfect scenario, but even if that fails to develop, should Michael O’Neill’s overachieving players take four points in these four days there are still two games in October. Even two points would leave the Irishmen with all to play for next month and, as they came from the fifth pot when the draw was made, that is remarkable.
Finishing fifth in 2014 World Cup qualification has been a memory eroded since the opening game last September. Late goals then from Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty brought a 2-1 victory in Hungary. Lafferty scored in the next qualifier, the 2-0 win over the Faroes in Belfast, and then in the 2-0 win in Greece. In all Lafferty has five goals in the group and the 27-year-old striker has emerged as a key individual for O’Neill.
Lafferty is a Norwich City employee but he spent the second half of last season on loan in Turkey with Rizespor. He is back at Norwich, hoping to make an impact in the Premier League, but Lafferty is yet to play – he has had one game since May due to knee-ligament trouble.
While not match-fit, Lafferty said he is “back to full fitness” and insists “adrenalin” will get him through the Faroes game and Hungary on Monday. He is one booking from a suspension, though.
That gives O’Neill something to ponder but the prize of reaching France 2016 is within reach. Lafferty said: “We have that feeling now that we just can’t wait for the next game because we are excited and want to cross that finish line.”
Northern Ireland (probable): Carroll; McLaughlin, Evans, McAuley, Brunt; Baird; Ward, Davis, Norwood, Dallas; Lafferty.Reuse content