Is Spain Northern Ireland’s gateway to Switzerland?

For all the pessimists, one of my colleagues over at the Daily Telegraph, Patrick Nathanson, reckons, Northern Ireland has at least a fighting chance of punching sufficiently above their weight. And he’s reasonably sanguine about Lativia’s chances against the mighty Swedes:

Just two years later, the Latvian football team had their fans dancing to a different tune when they qualified for Euro 2004. And Northern Irish fans will be heartened to know that Latvia’s qualification was secured courtesy of a final game win away to, you’ve guessed it, Sweden.

In this qualifying campaign, the baltic side have been something of an enigma. They put eight goals past Iceland, who beat Northern Ireland home and away, and stunned the Irish with a 1-0 win, yet they were severely embarrassed by a 1-0 defeat to tiny Liechenstein in March.

But even if it doesn’t result in a trip to the finals for the first time since Spain in 1986, the team can be happy their prospective draw for the next World Cup will be considerably eased next time out. Goalkeeper Maik Taylor:

“But if we don’t qualify it will not be a failure considering where we have come from. We improved in the last campaign and we have improved again this campaign.

“Before we were 120th in the Fifa rankings so it was always going to be difficult but they have improved and if the draw is kind for the next tournament we will be in an even better group which gives us more of a chance.”