Northern Ireland at full strength for Hughes' farewell ties

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The Independent Football

Northern Ireland are back to full strength for their Euro 2012 qualifiers against Estonia and Italy, with captain Aaron Hughes set to lead the squad for the final time before retirement.

Hughes announced at the weekend that he would call time on his international career after the last two matches of the current qualifying campaign and, if a recent knee problem allows, will hope to lead the side for one last time at Windsor Park when Estonia visit on 7 October, followed by the trip to Pescara to face Italy four days later.

His dream of qualifying for a first major tournament is in tatters after the side lost back-to-back matches against Serbia and then Estonia last time out but Northern Ireland will be desperate to avenge their humiliating 4-1 defeat in Tallinn and improve their current position of fifth in Group C.

Manager Nigel Worthington, whose own future is in doubt when his current deal expires at the end of the campaign, has a much-improved squad to choose from this time.

First-choice striker Kyle Lafferty and winger Paddy McCourt, who has not played since scoring two stunning goals against the Faroe Islands, are both in the 23-man squad having been sent home from Belfast last month with calf injuries. Derby forward Jamie Ward was also forced to withdraw with a hamstring strain but is back in action for the Rams and returns to the international fold.

Elsewhere, Bosnia have a slim chance of beating France to automatic qualification for the Euro 2012 finals but are confident of clinching a playoff berth, coach Safet Susic said yesterday. A home win over Luxembourg in Zenica next month would seal a runners-up spot for Bosnia in Group D, where France lead the way with 17 points from eight matches followed by the Bosnians on 16 and Romania with 12 points.

Bosnia, who have never qualified for a major tournament as an independent nation, could win the group and advance to next year's finals in Poland and Ukraine when they face France in their final group match on 11 October.

"We have to be realistic and admit that France are strong favourites, hence saying anything contrary or promising a win in Paris would be preposterous," Susic said after naming his 21-man squad for the two crunch qualifiers.

"I don't want to talk about the game against France because the imperative is to beat Luxembourg and finish as runners-up, which was my objective when I took over.

"I will field my best eleven against Luxembourg and perhaps an experimental side against France, because I have two world-class goalkeepers and several players I want to test for a possible play-off tie.

"We have to be focused against Luxembourg because it's a key match and they have nothing to lose," said former Yugoslavia forward Susic, who took over from Croatian Miroslav Blazevic in December 2009.

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