Northern Ireland host Austria with an eye on Slovakia next month
Uefa Nations League B, Group 1, round three: Northern Ireland v Austria (7.45pm tomorrow, Windsor Park)
IAN Baraclough admitted he is a 'very lucky' manager – very lucky to have this group of Northern Ireland players.
After their heroics in defeating Bosnia & Herzegovina in a play-off semi-final penalty shoot-out in Sarajevo they must now turn their attention to Austria tomorrow night.
In truth, many thoughts will probably be about their eastern neighbours, Slovakia. Conquerors of the Republic of Ireland in a penalty shoot, Pavel Hapal's side are due to come to Belfast next month for the play-off final.
Baraclough's management must turn as much to the players he doesn't use against Austria – and Norway next Wednesday - as those he does.
Keeping good relations with clubs is more important than ever nowadays, so expect plenty of changes from those who played two hours plus in the Grbavica Stadium on Thursday night.
Napoli refused to let midfielder Stanislav Lobotka travel to Bratislava, purportedly over a delayed Covid test, and the Slovaks also had to do without centre half Milan Skriniar of Inter as he tested positive.
Baraclough will not want to send anyone back to their clubs with injury problems, acknowledging: "Now we're looking forward to Sunday, and then Wednesday [away to Norway] – but we'll have to look after players because a lot of energy has been put out there.
"Players have come off cramping up; we thought Paddy [McNair] had picked up an ankle injury but he said he'd cramped up after 80 minutes. Again we know that next month we'll be that much further on with their fitness, their strength, and we start looking forward to that."
'Bara' knows that his players will accept the selection decisions made for the next two Nations League games, saying: "The spirit of the lads is fantastic, they're selfless: they don't think about themselves, they think just of the team, that's the group of players we've got.
"I've got a group of players I feel very comfortable with, they've worked very hard since coming in on Sunday. They enjoy working together as a group, they enjoy coming and playing for their country. I'm very lucky in that respect, that I've got that type of squad."
The goalscorer in Sarajevo exemplified that attitude: "Niall McGinn, I was delighted with his contribution throughout the night. I knew that his legs would probably go a little bit, but before he came off he had to go and score for us – he's popped up again.
"That's somebody who was probably disappointed with me last month because he never got any game-time [away to Romania or at home to Norway]."
Similarly with the two Jordans, Jones and Thompson, who were brought on before the end of normal time – then taken off just before the penalty shoot-out to allow Conor Washington and Liam Boyce to score from the spot.
"We knew it could go all the way," said Baraclough. "That's the preparation we did last month, it's the preparation we did when we met up.
"We worked on penalties, we knew our penalty-takers, that's why we made the substitutions at the end of extra time.
"The two lads that had come off the bench had to sacrifice themselves, because they've not been as strong on the penalties. Decisions like that have to be made.
"Credit to the staff who have worked hard on those areas as well. That's not accidental, that's hard work from Steve Harper the goalkeeping coach, we've worked on that as a group, we've worked on people being comfortable taking them in certain areas, certain positions, practised them. We left no stone unturned."
Ahead of that one-off game next month, NI are aiming to record a first Nations League victory at the seventh attempt. Unfortunate to lose all four first time around two years ago, against Austria and especially against Bosnia & Herzegovina, they did well to draw 1-1 in Romania last month before a depleted, not match-fit side was thrashed 5-1 in Belgast by Norway.
Austria won their campaign opener, 2-1 in Norway, but then lost 3-2 at home to Romania, before coming from behind to beat Greece 2-1 in a friendly in Klagenfurt on Wednesday night.
Among the many changes to the home team there's likely to be some involvement for St Johnstone midfielder Ally McCann, who qualifies through his Northern Irish father Ian, with the 20-year-old known to Baraclough from his U21 days.
The boss will have to balance out potential short-term gains (or losses, to injury) against long-term aims, with the knowledge of how Nations League performances can affect rankings, with the draw for World Cup 2022 qualifying due to take place this December.
Northern Ireland are currently bottom of League B, 32nd overall, so must to their best to avoid sinking down to C level.
However, hosting Slovakia next month is still what matters most at this stage.