Northern Ireland aiming to beat Romania despite absentees

Ethan Galbraith and Daniel Ballard during Northern Ireland’s training session at Windsor Park.
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Uefa Nations League B1, round six: Northern Ireland v Romania (Windsor Park, 7.45pm)

YOU can only look after yourself, managers and players love to say – but Northern Ireland could also help the Republic of Ireland tonight.

Although NI are almost certain to drop down to Nations League C and are already in Pot 3 for next month’s World Cup draw, a home victory could boost Stephen Kenny’s side and place them in Pot 2.

The Republic would also need to beat Bulgaria at the Aviva tonight and require Serbia to defeat Russia in Group B3. The Serbs must win to have any chance of avoiding relegation, but Russia also need a victory to be certain of promotion.

A home win in Belfast is the unlikeliest element of that ‘treble’, it must be said. Performances have been better than results – it would be a truly terrible state of affairs if they were worse – but with Romania also in the running for that Pot 2 place the visitors still have something to play for.

It’s unlikely that the hosts do, at least not in terms of the Nations League, although that remains unclear at the time of writing, despite this being the final round of group games.

Uefa’s decision is still awaited about the unplayed Romania-Norway fixture from Sunday, called off because Norwegian government wouldn’t allow their team to travel after a player tested positive for Covid-19. Norway were calling up foreign-based players in order to fulfil their game away to Austria tonight, where a home win would ensure promotion for the hosts.

It’s probable that Romania will be awarded three points from Sunday’s cancellation, which would definitely demote NI, as would even one point, although the possibility of drawing lots to determine that weekend result remains.

Either way, Romania cannot elevate themselves to League A – but they can earn a place in Pot 2 for next month’s World Cup draw with a win here.

If they lose, and Norway somehow get three points from that outstanding match, Northern Ireland would, improbably, avoid the drop.

Home boss Ian Baraclough understandably insisted he was thinking only of securing a first Nations League win at the 10th attempt (his sixth game in this competition):

“It won’t change how we go about the game. We’ve got a game-plan, we’ve worked on stuff and we know the threats Romania will pose.

“In our mindset we are going out to win the game and that doesn’t change if we get a ruling from UEFA on the game from the other night. We leave that up to them; it’s something we can’t control and we go into this game positive.”

A positive coronavirus test for a player is about the only setback NI haven’t suffered this month. The squad was hit by further withdrawals yesterday, including skipper Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty for personal reasons, adding to George Saville after losing the play-off final to Slovakia, while Niall McGinn and Jordan Thompson miss out again due to injuries sustained last Thursday night.

Only Aberdeen winger Mattie Kennedy has been called up to what is now a 20-man squad, so there may be game-time for Manchester United’s highly-rated Ethan Galbraith and perhaps another start for Ali McCann.

Besides the element of pride about ending their winless streak in this competition, for NI every point is precious in the long-term rankings picture. With the shoot-out success in Sarajevo last month the only competitive win (and that’s a moot point) since the summer of 2019, a slide down the rankings has followed.

Rated 28th in the world and 18th in Europe after back to back victories in Estonia and Belarus in June last year, NI are now down to 41st (23rd among Uefa sides) and set to fall further, probably to 28th in Europe and perhaps even out of the world top 50.

‘Bara’ insists his depleted squad are determined to win, despite the chance that this may be a dead ‘rubber’: “Not winning games when you feel as if you should do, that annoys the players. We’ve made one or two changes during these Nations League games. For me, coming in as a new manager, I wanted to see as many players as possible, that was important.

“We certainly prioritised Bosnia and Slovakia [in the Euro play-off matches], but I’ve also taken things from this Nations League campaign that are invaluable to me going forward. We’ve seen certain players in positions we’ve not seen them in before – Michael [Smith], I hadn’t seen him play in the middle of a midfield three but I had confidence in his abilities and he went and showed that.

“It just gives you food for though further down the line. Even though you want to be winning every game possible, but if you learn stuff along the way, get positive performances, which we certainly have, that opens my eyes to certain things.”

Baraclough was quite rightly annoyed that his team didn’t collect at least a second point in this group on Sunday, after a clearly offside equaliser for Austria was allowed due to the absence of VAR:

“UEFA spoke about the Nations League being their third most prestigious tournament. I don’t care how people look at it, it is a UEFA competition and if all others have VAR, it should do.

“Yes, it goes for and against you at times, but there shouldn’t be any grey areas. Decisions like that change the course of the game and we should have been going into the last 15 minute 1-0 up. It wasn’t picked up but we have to run with that now.”

Both teams in Belfast tonight have to deal with the disappointment of missing out on the Euros. Romania’s semi-final defeat away to Iceland was doubly galling as Bucharest is due to be one of the host cities – although with Dublin also on that list Northern Ireland failed to secure an ‘almost home’ venue by losing to Slovakia.

It would be another twist in this strangest of years if NI gave the Republic a lift at the last.

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