Lithuania a must-win says Baraclough for NI's World Cup qualification hopes
NORTHERN Ireland manager Ian Baraclough has admitted that next month's World Cup qualifier in Lithuania is a 'must win' encounter if the team are to have any hopes of making it to Qatar in 2022.
As Baraclough, whose side have one point from their opening two group games, named his first squad of the season yesterday he spoke about his targets for the September 2 clash in Vilnius and the vital home match versus Switzerland six days later with a friendly away to Estonia in between.
He also revealed why Liverpool teenager Conor Bradley kept his place in the panel after making his debut on the summer tour and explained the absence of crowd favourite Kyle Lafferty.
Having lost in Italy and drawn 0-0 with Bulgaria at Windsor Park, Baraclough knows he needs a healthy return in his next World Cup showdowns.
He said: "I'd love to target six points. If we come away with four it wouldn't be the end of the world for us.
"There's no reason we can't come away from the Belfast game having beaten Switzerland and if we want to do anything during this qualifying campaign, the Lithuania game is one where you target three points. If we're not at our best then it's a potential banana skin and if we don't reach the heights that we know we can, we make it more difficult for ourselves to qualify come November.
"I don't mind that pressure being ramped up. It's a must win game if we want to do something during this campaign."
Experienced defender Jonny Evans has yet to play for Leicester this season due to a foot injury but has been named in the Northern Ireland squad.
Baraclough stated: "Jonny is definitely going to be a doubt. Nobody is going to put him at risk when he's not quite ready but if he can play a small part in the 10 days that we have together, we'll give him every chance of that."
At the other end of his career is 18-year-old Liverpool full-back Bradley who came off the bench versus Malta in May.
"Speaking to the Liverpool management and the staff, they're really pleased with how Conor has developed in pre-season," said Baraclough.
"I think it's one of those where eventually he will go back and play in the U19s or U21s but for this camp, he comes in with us and learns more from senior players.
"It's a project with Conor and we have to make sure we look after him and don't put too much pressure on him but he did really well for us in the summer. I was very pleased with how he came through that.
"Many of the more senior players like Jonny (Evans), Corry (Evans) and Steven (Davis) weren't on that trip. I'd like him to have another trip with those players being amongst it as well to give him the experience and chance to learn from them and how they go about their business."
Hearts striker Liam Boyce has made himself unavailable due to family reasons but for 33-year-old Lafferty, who recently joined Cypriot club Anorthosis Famagusta, there was disappointment to be left out. Baraclough insisted though this is not the end for the Fermanagh striker.
"Leaving somebody like Kyle out of the squad was a big decision for me,” he said. “Kyle's been a mainstay of the group for a long time and he was disappointed. I've not closed the door on anyone and Kyle knows that and hopefully he can do well at club level and he is not ruled out going forward."
Meanwhile Baraclough, who is hoping a big crowd is allowed into Windsor for the Swiss game, wished Austin MacPhee well following his departure from the Irish FA coaching staff to join the Scotland set-up.
Northern Ireland squad: Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Trevor Carson, Conor Hazard; Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, Stuart Dallas, Shane Ferguson, Michael Smith, Jamal Lewis, Daniel Ballard, Ciaron Brown; Steve Davis, Corry Evans, Niall McGinn, George Saville, Jordan Thompson, Ali McCann, Gavin Whyte, Paddy McNair, Jordan Jones, Conor Bradley; Josh Magennis, Conor Washington, Shayne Lavery, Dion Charles.