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Away form has to improve

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Joel Taggart | 14:36 UK time, Monday, 8 February 2010

For the Northern Ireland players drinking in the last chance saloon of major tournament qualification, the barman in Warsaw could've been a little kinder.

Nigel Worthington has an age-old problem to solve if Northern Ireland are to negotiate their way through Group C and reach the promised land of the finals of the European Championship in 2012.

It's been talked about at great length for years and their are small signs that Nigel and his players are finding a solution, but if Northern Ireland don't find a way of winning away from home against decent opposition, then it doesn't matter which of the nine groups they had been drawn in. They won't qualify.

Home form under Lawrie Sanchez and Nigel in the big games has not been a problem - Spain, England, Denmark, Sweden, Slovenia and Poland have all been put to the sword in recent campaigns - but these days that is not enough.

A group that contains three teams that qualified for this summer's World Cup finals highlights the difficulty of the task ahead, but none of the other five teams in the group, including Italy, will be licking their lips and looking forward to the prospect of a Windsor Park Wednesday night.

Nigel WorthinftonWill Nigel Worthington opt for Italy in the first qualifer for Euro 2012?

I firmly believe that the two defining matches in Northern Ireland's campaign will come in Serbia and Slovenia. Whether they can achieve wins in those games is questionable. Serbia were impressive when they beat us 1-0 in a friendly in Belfast in November while we lost to Slovenia in Maribor in the last campaign.

Our recent away record in competitive games is awful. Just three wins in the last 34 competitive away matches spanning a 16-year period - and those wins came against the footballing super powers of Malta, Liechtenstein and San Marino.

You could argue that a 2-1 win against Austria in 1994, when Keith Gillespie announced his arrival on the international stage with a wonder strike, is the only victory away from home against notable opposition since we qualified for the World Cup in 1986.

That has got to change if the current crop of players are to have any chance of appearing at a major finals, an appearance that so many of them deserve for the service that they've given. A return of 19 points from a possible 96 in the last 32 away games is nowhere near enough to help make that happen.

I must say I've been encouraged by the last two away performances in the Czech Republic and, in particular, Poland, where I've no doubt that the injury to Kyle Lafferty cost Northern Ireland the three points.

But that highlighted the other problem, a lack of squad depth in certain key areas. When Warren Feeney and Lafferty were ruled out with injury for the home game against Slovakia - at a key stage of the campaign - we were toothless. Luck with injury and suspension will be a factor.

Before all of that, Worthington will head to Belgrade for the fixture meeting involving all six countries in Group C and try to work out an agreed schedule for the order in which the games will be played.

He'll keep his cards close to his chest, but he must be tempted to go for Italy away as a group opener, in a bid to catch the current World Champions cold after this summer's finals and before their domestic season has got anywhere close to full swing.

Slovenia we know all about. Truth be told, we were lucky to beat them 1-0 in Belfast during the last campaign and they were brilliant in the two-legged play-off against Russia, booking their place in South Africa this summer.

We may have beaten Estonia twice in friendly games in recent years but both were narrow 1-0 wins. And many may remember the last time the Faroe Islands, now managed by former Republic of Ireland boss Brian Kerr, came to Belfast and earned a 1-1 draw in a European Championship qualifier in 1991, their first ever point away from home in competitive international football. Nigel will certainly remember it, he played that night.

From experience, the manager knows nothing can be taken for granted. But to qualify, 12 points are a must from the games against Estonia and the Faroes. Hopefully, Nigel and the players will have found a way to banish the disappointing away days to the history books and by maintaining our impressive home form of recent years we might just go close to qualifying for the European finals for the first time ever.


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