Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland aiming for better performance away to Norway

Norway cruised to a 5-1 win at Windsor Park last month against Northern Ireland.
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Uefa Nations League B, Group 1, round 4: Norway v Northern Ireland (tonight, 7.45pm, Ullevaal Stadium, Oslo)

DAMAGE limitation may appear in order tonight but even then it probably won't be enough to prevent another defeat for the visitors.

Northern Ireland probably don't mind being written off, they're well used to that, yet although they won't write this match off themselves they know there's a much more important story next month.

To adopt and adapt the buzz phrase of the moment, 'Project Big Picture' involves looking forward to the Euro play-off semi-final at home to Slovakia rather than worrying unduly about Nations League relegation to League C.

Norway are clearly a team on the up, especially with prolific striking prodigy Erling Haaland in their ranks – but they'd still swap places with Ian Baraclough's men to have a shot at reaching next summer's Euros tournament.

"If he plays," said Baraclough about Haaland. "He has played 120 minutes [in the Euro play-off semi-final] and 80 minutes the other night, so you're maybe hoping Dortmund will have an arrangement with the Norwegian manager Lars Lagerback that he doesn't play."

Left-back Jamal Lewis is the only NI player who hasn't travelled, due to an Achilles tendon niggle, but there'll be other changes too, the boss confirmed:

"We're going to be sensible. We will make it competitive, but one or two players will get starts that haven't started the two previous games. It's important I look at these players and it's important they get game-time as well…

"There has to be a certain amount of continuity because we don't have that amount of depth in our country."

It's slightly embarrassing that NI are still without a victory in this competition after seven matches over two series, putting them in the same category as Andorra, Latvia, Malta, and San Marino (before last night's matches).

Yet Iceland and the Republic of Ireland also remain winless, but the former have a play-off final while the latter missed out on a trip to Belfast to take on their northern neighbours.

Baraclough is realistic about his priorities, knowing he can't send exhausted players back to their clubs, but also aiming to improve in this competition:

"Of course. I've spoken several times about doing better in the Nations League and making sure we do give ourselves a chance of being in one of the higher pots.

"It's also important to have the momentum of winning games and doing well in games to take that into your next game.

"We don't want to go into the Slovakia having been beaten by Austria - albeit by just one goal - and if you go and lose the next one, it's doesn't do any good for people's confidence.

"We'll be prepared and the players know it's the last game now before Slovakia so it's a chance to impress in that respect."

Similarly, skipper Steven Davis has one eye on next month, saying: "Ultimately we want to win games and we'll be doing everything possible in Norway to do that, but we also have to look at the bigger picture and get clarity on what everyone wants going into the Slovakia game next month.

"You go into every game wanting to win, no matter what. A positive result would be great for belief and momentum ahead of the Slovakia game but it's also a good opportunity for some of the other boys to go and show what they can do.

"In November everyone will be desperate to play in the play-off final and everyone will be pushing to get a shirt, and Wednesday is a great opportunity to stake a claim."

Now closer to 36 than 35, and with his club Rangers due to visit arch-rivals Celtic on Saturday, 'Davo' still didn't rule himself out of collecting a 122nd cap:

"I'll leave that up to the management team to make that decision. I think, if you go over the course of the season, I'm not going to play 60 games and at times you make that decision, but in terms of how I feel, I feel good, I felt good after playing extra-time last week and I felt good on Sunday as well.

"Of course, whenever you're away with Northern Ireland you always want to play. Maybe as you get older you should think about that a little bit more but every game you're involved in, you want to play - there's no doubt about that."

Norway won handsomely at Windsor Park last month, 5-1, including two goals each from Haaland and striker partner Alexander Sorloth, Davis recalling: "They were really efficient and clinical, but certainly we can improve on how we played with the ball.

"We can cause opposition teams problems and that is something we'll look at and look to improve on."

Borussia Dortmund star Haaland is the type of player NI will have to contain if they reach the Euros, accepts Davis:

"Yeah, he is a phenomenal talent. He is producing unreal numbers at such a young age.

"He has all the attributes in terms of physicality and speed and technique. I don't see many weaknesses in his game but when you come up against these players, you relish the opportunity to test yourself against them and it'll be a great chance to do that, for whoever plays."

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Football/Soccer