Hughes pleased to lose tag of pushovers

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The Independent Football

Three qualifying matches left, and already the noises emanating from Mark Hughes are more along the lines of Wales "building for the future" than pursuing the possibility of a place in Korea and Japan which, mathematically at least, still exists. For the first time in decades, however, the phrase may not have a hollow ring to it.

True, Wales have not won a single match in Group Five, but they have shown a new resilience which has gleaned five draws from their seven outings, the most creditable a 1-1 share of the spoils in Kiev against Ukraine in June.

Now it is time, Hughes believes, to turn draws into wins, starting with Armenia in Cardiff on Saturday and in Oslo against Norway four days later. "Maybe people didn't expect us to have stretched things this far," Hughes says. "But we have been so close. We have been so near to a much better position. But we still need to go that extra step.

"We are now competitive at this level, and I'm pleased we are no longer considered an easy touch. We had a great performance in Ukraine in our last match and we didn't get anywhere near enough praise for that. They have some great players, two fine strikers, and I was really pleased by the performance. It was the last game of a very long season and our players came back from behind in a hostile environment and gave me everything."

Three wins from their final matches, with other results going their way, could see Wales take the group to the wire. To achieve that, Hughes will need to see goals, and with both John Hartson and Nathan Blake suspended for the first match of the double-header, a lot will rest on the shoulders of Burnley's in-form striker Gareth Taylor, who has earned a recall after three years in the wilderness.

For Northern Ireland, the road to Korea/Japan has already become a cul-de-sac, giving manager Sammy McIlroy the chance to search for new talent ready to embark on Euro 2004 qualification next season. McIlroy has called up the promising Sunderland defender George McCartney to the squad to face Denmark in Copenhagen on Saturday and Iceland in Belfast the following Wednesday.

The 20-year-old was drafted in from the Under-21s for the match against Bulgaria in June but is still looking for his first cap after failing to feature. The Ipswich midfielder Jim Magilton returns after a long absence through injury.