Belfast Telegraph

Going top ahead of Spain would be a big boost for Northern Ireland U21s: Baraclough

N Ireland v Estonia, UEFA U21 Qualfier: Mourneview Park, Tonight, 7.30pm

By Liam Blackburn

Northern Ireland Under-21s face Estonia at Mourneview Park tonight knowing they could end the night top of a group that includes Spain and Iceland.

Under new boss Ian Baraclough, the team have emerged victorious in two of their first three Euro 2019 qualifiers having previously gone four years without a competitive win.

They are currently level on points with leaders Slovakia, who entertain Spain this week, so the possibility that Baraclough's side could leave this international break at the top of the pile is one the manager has hammered home to his players.

"That's our aim, that's what we've spoken about," Baraclough said. "We can definitely go into November heading the group.

"I know Spain will have only played a couple of games but if we can put some points on the board, who knows what may happen in the following games going into next year?

"You just want to keep it snowballing, that confidence building and hopefully the group carry that on from the start we've had."

Michael O'Neill's senior team had their play-off place for the World Cup finals confirmed on Sunday, and there will be doubts over whether a number of his players will continue after that given their advancing years.

O'Neill will therefore have been pleased with the start Baraclough's team have made to their own qualification campaign, and the Under-21s manager has seen a shift in their mentality.

"It's not all about winning games of football at Under-21 - it is about developing the players and giving them experience of international football so that if the chance arises with the senior group they are fully prepared and ready," Baraclough added.

"We're not used to getting results at this level. To have six points from three games, with a good chance of making it nine from a possible 12, that would be a tremendous start.

"You can see the players are coming in and they've got a bit more about them. Hopefully they can put that into practice going into the game."

Baraclough, whose squad have been in Jersey on a training camp, will be without Derry's Conor McDermott and Brighton's Ben Hall through injury.

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