Having not qualified for the FIFA World Cup since 1986, Northern Ireland meet Group 3 leaders Slovakia tonight knowing a win in Belfast would put them top of the section and defender Gareth McAuley declared: "We've got to play this game like it's the last you're ever going to play."
Slovakia travel to Windsor Park in pole position for automatic qualification, sitting two points ahead of second-placed Northern Ireland with a game in hand. However, the home side are on an impressive run and manager Nigel Worthington feels the home support will help drive his team on to victory. "What we need is a very passionate crowd at Windsor Park – once again – and our performance needs to be good," he said. "Slovakia have done tremendously well; they're tough, organised and have been top of the group for a long while."
Northern Ireland started their bid for a World Cup berth with a 2-1 loss against Slovakia in Bratislava. Worthington recalled the game with frustration, but said its memory would give his team plenty of motivation for the return: "It was a very disappointing performance in Slovakia – we owe them one." After picking up just one point from their first three group games, Northern Ireland won four in a row before drawing 1-1 in Poland on Saturday night, a result the 47-year-old former international was more than satisfied with. "We've got momentum in our play after Poland," Worthington added.
However, the hosts will be without Kyle Lafferty, who scored the goal in Chorzow at the weekend but was then forced off with a knee injury. Burnley FC forward Martin Paterson is his likely replacement as David Healy's strike partner, despite missing two good chances after coming on at the Slaski Stadium. Worthington also has the versatile Chris Baird and left winger Chris Brunt available again after sitting out that game due to injury and suspension respectively.
With games against Slovenia and Poland to come, Vladimír Weiss's Slovakia side know that top spot will still be in their hands even if they lose to Worthington's men. However, they will have to do without SSC Napoli playmaker Marek Hamšík tonight following his dismissal shortly after scoring in the 2-2 home draw against the Czech Republic on Saturday. Slovakia may remain favourites for direct qualification to the South Africa finals, but a home victory would at the very least give the hosts' play-off prospects a huge boost with Worthington saying winning would be "a great result that could set the whole of Northern Ireland alight."
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