Hughes sees quality in McIlroy's underdogs

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The Independent Football

Even cynics could not be blamed for sniggering at the suggestion that Northern Ireland, who have won only two of their last 18 competitive matches, can qualify from a World Cup qualifying group that includes the Czech Republic, Denmark, Bulgaria and Iceland.

Even cynics could not be blamed for sniggering at the suggestion that Northern Ireland, who have won only two of their last 18 competitive matches, can qualify from a World Cup qualifying group that includes the Czech Republic, Denmark, Bulgaria and Iceland.

However, Aaron Hughes, the Newcastle United defender, has done the only thing possible and taken a positive approach; the province will get nowhere in Group Three without a bit of positive thinking, he maintains. "It's not beyond us that we can go on and qualify," Hughes said. "We have got to be positive. If we think we'll do all right and maybe finish mid-table, but won't qualify, there's no point going out in the first place."

Hughes' optimism is based on the new confidence the manager, Sammy McIlroy, has instilled in the squad after their dreadful Euro 2000 qualifying campaign under the previous manager, Lawrie McMenemy.

McIlroy is also in upbeat mood before his first competitive match at Windsor Park and he has set his sights on finishing second in the group. McIlroy competed in the 1982 and 1986 World Cup Finals and he would love his players to experience that thrill. "Those were marvellous days and it would be great for these players to taste a bit of that," he said.

"The Czech Republic are going to be strong favourites for the group and they're one of the top three or four sides in the world. You've got Denmark who are going through a bit of a transitional phase with a new manager, the Bulgarians and Iceland who are trying to be a little bit of a force.

"I think if we can fight for that runners-up spot - and that's not throwing the towel in, but being realistic - and push all those teams for that second spot, that would be tremendous."

Northern Ireland's chances will be over almost before they have begun if they do not beat Malta - who have not won a competitive match in over seven years - and record their first home win since October 1998. The Irish beat Malta 3-0 in a friendly back in March.

McIlroy could stick with his 4-5-1 formation against Malta with David Healy playing as a lone striker, which could mean a first cap for Motherwell midfielder Stuart Elliott. Malta, who are 20 places lower than the Irish at 118 in the world rankings, have lost their midfielder Stefan Giglio with an ankle injury and he has been replaced by the highly-experienced Joe Brincat.

NORTHERN IRELAND (probable): Carroll; A Hughes, Williams, Taggart, Nolan; Horlock, Lomas, Magilton, Johnson, Elliott; Healy.

MALTA (probable): Barry; Chetcuti, Debono, Said, Theuma; Carabott, Camilleri, Brincat, Turner; Busuttil, Zahra.

GROUP THREE FIXTURES

Today: Bulgaria v Czech Republic; Iceland v Northern Ireland v Denmark. Sat 7 Oct: Bulgaria v Malta; Northern Ireland v Denmark; Czech Republic v Iceland. Wed 11 Oct: Denmark v Bulgaria; Iceland v Northern Ireland; Malta v Czech Republic. Sat 24 March: Northern Ireland v Czech Republic. Sun 25 Mar: Bulgaria v Iceland; Malta v Denmark. Wed 28 March: Bulgaria v Northern Ireland; Czech Republic v Denmark. Wed 25 April: Malta v Iceland. Sat 2 June: Denmark v Czech Republic; Iceland v Malta; Northern Ireland v Bulgaria. Wed 6 June: Czech Republic v Northern Ireland; Denmark v Malta; Iceland v Bulgaria. Sat 1 Sept: Denmark v Northern Ireland; Iceland v Czech Republic; Malta v Bulgaria. Wed 5 Sept: Bulgaria v Denmark; Czech Republic v Malta; Northern Ireland v Iceland. Sat 6 Oct: Czech Republic v Bulgaria; Denmark v Iceland; Malta v Northern Ireland.

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