Northern Ireland, the shock leaders of Group Three in Europe’s World Cup qualifying tournament, are counting on the appliance of science to help them stay there with a victory over Slovenia here on Wednesday.
Manager Nigel Worthington has employed sports scientist Jonny Bloomfield to ensure that his squad’s recovery process in the wake of Saturday’s 3-2 win over Poland is as efficient as possible.
Aaron Hughes, the Fulham defender who captains the province, has been impressed and believes Worthington’s attention to detail could pay off at Windsor Park on Wednesday.
“We have been very well looked after since Saturday,” he said. “That is the good thing about having Jonny Bloomfield around. The manager likes to look at our heart rates and how we train, if we are doing too much or too little.
“It is little things like that; if it only makes two per cent difference to us, it is to our advantage.”
Defeats in Slovenia and Slovakia earlier in the campaign dented confidence in the Northern Ireland camp but Hughes said there was now a real belief that they were capable of reaching South Africa.
“I do not think there is anything to fear in the group,” he said. “There has not been a team that has steamrollered us.
“We did not deserve to lose those games in Slovakia and Slovenia, so it was hard to take. Most of the teams are looking at the top two places and we are no different. We have no less chance than anyone else.
“We know we have two difficult away games against Poland and the Czech Republic to come but anything could happen.”
Worthington has urged his side to keep the pressure on their rivals.
He said: “There is a carrot for us, knowing we need three points to stay top of the group for a while longer.
“We’re not playing games in the summer, like other teams, but we would be in a relatively good position for the game in Poland in September.
“We know what we’ve got to do, we know how we’ve got to go about it and it’s now a case of going and doing it.”
Injured Motherwell defender Stephen Craigan is doubtful and Worthington must also do without the suspended Chris Brunt. But he does have defender George McCartney and midfielder Steven Davis available again after suspension.
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