Northern Ireland seeking success for Baraclough against Bulgaria

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough. 
Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough.  Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough. 

World Cup 2022 European qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland v Bulgaria (Windsor Park, 7.45pm)

THE weight, the wait, pressing on Northern Ireland – and Ian Baraclough.

The weight of recent history, the expectation of challenging closely for qualification.

The wait for a win inside 90 minutes, and for a home victory.

Opportunity knocks tonight, but failure to win would almost push the door closed on getting to Qatar 2022.

It might seem harsh that there’s such pressure on the home boss, given that he did oversee a penalty shoot-out victory away to Bosnia & Herzegovina in the Euro play-off semi-final back in October.

Yet even Niall McGinn, who scored the equaliser out in Sarajevo, spoke on Sunday evening about “getting the first victory” under Baraclough.

‘Bara’ is adamant he’s not overly concerned about that, explaining: “If we weren’t creating chances and weren’t playing well, it would be something to worry about.

“But in both the games we had in this camp there has been a lot to be happy about, and in the games in October and November last year we played really well from tee to green, we’ve just not been able to finish off chances and finish off teams when we’ve had the chances and that can happen.

“The quicker that ends the better. I’d like to go into the summer period and September with three points, looking at the table knowing we have three out of a possible six.”

Baraclough has a few selection calls to make, starting with the goalkeeper’s jersey. Bailey Peacock-Farrell was again at fault for a crucial second goal in Italy, as was the case in the Euro play-off final at home to Slovakia. Celtic’s Conor Hazard put in an assured display in Sunday’s friendly against the USA, beaten only by a deflection and a scruffy penalty kick.

“Do you know what, Conor Hazard has started his first game and he’s stepped up to the plate,” said Baraclough.

“Between the two of them, along with Trevor [Carson] and Michael [McGovern], we have a very strong goalkeeping department, and that’s what I’m pleased about. Hopefully I’ve always got a difficult decision to make.”

The boss insisted that Peacock-Farrell’s confidence hasn’t been knocked: “No, no. From within the camp, no – and I hope he doesn’t read the media, social media. I implore all the players not to read that or listen to people, with all respect to yourselves.

“Within the group we know that Bailey is a fantastic goalkeeper, he’s kept us in games, and that will be the situation again. We also know that Conor Hazard is a very, very good up-and-coming keeper. They were in the 21s together and now they’re battling it out at senior level and it’s a healthy competition.”

In defence, Michael Smith and Stuart Dallas showed enough against Italy to retain the crucial wing-back slots; Jamal Lewis is back in the mix for the left side, having come on for half an hour on Sunday after missing the trip to Parma due to an injury concern, but Dallas will surely start somewhere anyway, such is the Leeds man’s quality.

The same goes for the similarly versatile Paddy McNair, but the Middlesbrough player might move into midfield with young Daniel Ballard pushing for a place as the third centre-back. George Saville is another contender for centre-field after helping improve matters in the second half in Parma.

Up front there’s no stand-out pairing, although Linfield’s Shayne Lavery and new boy Dion Charles both made good impressions against the USA. With Conor Washington and Liam Boyce both absent, the experienced Josh Magennis may still lead the line, assisted by Gavin Whyte’s pace and trickery.

Baraclough expressed satisfaction with his preferred 3-5-2 formation, but argued that there is always on-pitch flexibility anyway:

“I see an improvement each time. It’s very easy to get stuck on one formation and say that’s what I go with; these players are used to playing 4-3-3, 3-5-2. Formations are only a matter of five yards at times. Within this formation you can be attacking high with a wing-back and the other one may come back around and it looks like a four at the back.

“People get het up on these formations but at any given time you could take a screenshot and it looks totally different. Players have to play with a freedom at times, play with a knowledge of other people’s positions, where they could be to affect the opposition.

“When we talk about a 3-5-2 it can look totally different at different stages. If we ask the players to go play a different way it’s not stuff they don’t know or that they don’t work on. We won’t throw anything at them that they don’t understand. Whatever it takes to win a game of football.”

How the opposition will line up remains unclear. Their new manager this year, Yasen Petrov, a journeyman footballer and boss, made six personnel changes from the home opener against Switzerland for the subsequent visit of Italy.

Bulgaria haven’t won away since September 2018, against Slovenia in the Nations League, and Baraclough doesn’t anticipate them being too attacking:

“I expect Bulgaria to come here and be very tight and very compact and not give a great deal away. We must be patient and then when those chances come, we need to make sure we take them.”

A first clean sheet under his charge would go a long way towards victory, with NI also having gone behind eight times in his 10 matches:

“Yep, we talk about the importance of that first goal. It gives you something to build on, you’re not trying to claw a game back…the opposition can change their mindset as well and they can make life very, very difficult.”

That’s just how life has been for Northern Ireland under Baraclough. Only a win will do.