NI boss Baraclough optimistic ahead of facing Italy in Parma
IN a city famed for its ham, Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough might only have been playing up his pre-match confidence.
Yet if managerial positivity can translate into performances on the pitch then perhaps the visitors might actually shock Italy – but it's a very long shot.
It's a very long time too since the men in green won away to a big hitter, going back to beating the then West Germany 1-0 in November 1983, but Baraclough didn't discount the possibility of bridging that gap at long last:
"I think there are a lot of players in this group who have been knocking on the door to do that and records like that need to be smashed or broken at some stage.
"I'm always saying to the players about rewriting history and being the next group of players that are spoken about in the very highest esteem.
"Yes, an away victory in Italy would be a monumental result and one players could look back on later in their career and later in their lives. It would be great to give ourselves a chance to do that and rewrite the history book."
With NI 17/1 outsiders, and even the draw rated at 5/1, anything other than a home win will be stunning, especially as Italy have never lost in 55 previous home qualifiers - but Baraclough believes in his players:
"It would be unusual for Northern Ireland not to be the underdog and we've been there many, many times. I almost relish that.
"We'll have a solid structure, but it's also a game where I hope the players can go and play with a bit of freedom within the team's shape.
"It's a structure the players are keen to play in and they know their roles and jobs. We have players who are bang in form at the moment, so that gives us as good a chance as any."
Realistically, though, even a draw would be a fabulous result against an in-form Italy, as Baraclough acknowledged:
"They'll come into this game with confidence. They qualified for the Euros with a 10 wins from 10, unblemished, 100 per cent record and they're unbeaten in 22 games.
"They're formidable opposition and we know that, but we hope there's maybe a rustiness there because they haven't been together for five months.
"We hope we can play to our highest level to give us a chance of being in the game and also a little bit of luck that you need along the way, whether it's refereeing decisions, the rub of the green, the ball dropping your way. But we know we'll have to be at our very best to get a result."
While Baraclough must assess the fitness of left-back Jamal Lewis, troubled by a groin problem, he also has other, better selection issues, with younger players like defender Daniel Ballard, midfielder Ali McCann, and now forward Dion Charles coming into the mix:
"It keeps everyone on their toes and no one comes in thinking they have a divine right to play. The likes of those younger players have come through and freshened it up.
"I think the senior players appreciate that as well. There needs to be an energy about the group and at the start of a new campaign it's great to have young players who have come in and know they can deal with it."
Even with forwards Conor Washington and Liam Boyce absent, Baraclough believes he has decent depth in his panel: "It shows we have more competition for places in different areas and certainly I've got a group of players who are all hungry to play.
"I'll disappoint half of them, but I can only pick 11, but they know there are two other games in this camp [against the USA and Bulgaria].
"The players who have come into the group have shown they can step up to this level and it gives me more of a choice and possibly become more unpredictable."