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Oct 4, 2010

Irish eyes focused on upset

For a side who have yet to debut at a European Championship finals tournament, Northern Ireland have an impressive ability to upset the big-boys in qualifying when on home soil.

'Norn Iron' won five of their six home games in their ultimately doomed attempts to get to Euro 2008 - including one of the shocks of the tournament, a 3-2 win over eventual champions Spain - and they also saw striker David Healy break the record for the most goals in a qualifying campaign (previously held by Croatia's Davor Suker), when he bagged 13.

Before that, a less impressive Euro 2004 qualifying campaign saw them register goalless draws with Spain and Ukraine (although they lost to both Armenia and Greece) and they only narrowly missed out on a place in the play-offs for Euro '96 after finishing level on points with the Republic - eventually succumbing on goal difference, by a single goal.

Historically, arguably their finest moment came when they beat West Germany 1-0 both home and away in qualifiers for Euro '84, as they inflicted the Germans' first ever home defeat in a qualifying campaign and expectation has risen again with former World Cup winners Italy arriving at Windsor Park on Friday.

Confidence is high after a 1-0 away win over Slovenia - ending a run of 12 games without a win - and boss Nigel Worthington has proved that his well-drilled side can be a match for anyone on their day.

''We had a game-plan, stuck to it and caused them problems,'' he said after the win. ''We started the second half slowly but defended well. We knew Slovenia would throw the kitchen sink at us but we got our blocks in, it was fantastic."

Worthington's men are certainly well versed in causing upsets, as Healy, Maik Taylor, Aaron Hughes, Stephen Craigan, Jonny Evans, Sammy Clingan, Steven Davis, Chris Baird, Warren Feeney and Kyle Lafferty all helped humble Spain two years ago and some were a part of the side that beat England 1-0 in a 2006 World Cup qualifier as well.

''At home over the last few years we've had some really good results,'' Hughes told Fulham's website. ''The England and Spain games will be talked about for years and we beat a lot of good teams that were ranked higher than us at home. Our home form is strong and we should go into the game with plenty of confidence.''

In contrast, the Italian squad that arrives at Windsor Park is very different to the one that sat at the top table of world football in 2006. Only three of the 23 players called up by new Italy coach Cesare Prandelli were around for those finals in Germany while, in the midst of a defensive injury crisis, the recall of veteran defender Gianluca Zambrotta suggests that the Azzurri are taking their Belfast trip very seriously indeed.

"Northern Ireland will be a difficult test for us as they almost qualified for major tournaments in recent times," Prandelli said before the game. "We are feeling good after two wins and we must go to Belfast with confidence."

But confidence is not in great supply in Italy. An extremely unconvincing 2-1 comeback win over Estonia and a 5-0 battering of lowly Faroe Islands is no real barometer for their advancement, and their overreliance on the form of Antonio Cassano has been obvious. The side struggled under Marcello Lippi in the summer and, while there has been something of a resurgence in terms of addressing the concerns of the World Cup, there are still weaknesses to be exploited.

One man that could find himself key in this regard is Rangers' 23-year-old striker Kyle Lafferty. Having scored a hat-trick in the Scottish League Cup win over Dunfermline two weeks ago, the powerful youngster is being tipped for a starting place. With Healy suffering from a lack of club football at Sunderland and Warren Feeney recovering from an ankle complaint, the stage could be set for Lafferty to stake his claim for the future, and his physical presence and aerial ability could unsteady an Italian side shorn of experience at the back.

Without Gianluigi Buffon, Italy must also rely on the untested Antonio Mirante, Salvatore Sirigu or Emiliano Viviano in goal and Prandelli will be very pleased if his side keep a clean sheet.

Italy beat Worthington's team 3-0 when the sides last met in a friendly in Pisa last year, but that game saw the Irish blood some young players of their own and is not a true test of their resolve. The sides have only met once before in a competitive game and, in qualifying for the 1958 FIFA World Cup, Northern Ireland came out on top. Losing 1-0 in Rome, they completed an incredible 2-1 victory in Belfast in the return fixture to qualify for their first major tournament. The Irish will think there is every chance to repeat the score.

Certainly it appears that while Northern Ireland should, of course, respect the former world champions, there is no reason to fear the Azzurri when they land in Belfast.

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