Northern Ireland continue their Nations League campaign on Sunday with a fixture against Cyprus in Larnaca.
Coming on the back of Thursday’s disappointing 1-0 home defeat to Greece, Ian Baraclough’s side need to produce a response.
Here, the PA news agency looks at the key talking points around the game.
Baraclough said before the Greece match he was keen to change the conversation around the Nations League for Northern Ireland, while Steven Davis spoke of a change of mindset among the players. But for whatever reasons, and there were no doubt several, the outcome was the same as Northern Ireland’s winless record in this competition extended to 11 games. If there is to be any realistic hope of them escaping League C or targeting a Euro qualifying play-off spot, that surely must end in Larnaca.
Shea Charles became the 11th player handed his senior debut by Baraclough when he came on for the last 11 minutes of Thursday’s match. But as much work as Baraclough has done to blood the next generation, it was the introduction of 34-year-olds Kyle Lafferty and Niall McGinn just after the hour that did the most to offer Northern Ireland a route back into the match. Baraclough knows he still needs his experienced players and will no doubt be leaning on them to help turn results around.
Lafferty’s return to the Northern Ireland squad for the first time since September was one of the big talking points coming into these fixtures, and given his recent form with Kilmarnock it was perhaps a surprise he did not go straight into the starting line-up on Thursday. Given the impact he had from the bench in the time he had, it would be a bigger surprise if he did not get the chance against Cyprus.
Baraclough admitted Northern Ireland were off their levels in Belfast, something the manager put down to rustiness within the squad given that a number of players had not had a competitive match for a number of weeks. With only a couple of days between games the window for recovery has been brief, and those who were not involved in the match had been sent out for a intense workout on the pitch as Windsor Park was still emptying out. But it remains to be seen how much time Northern Ireland need to get up to full speed, and whether or not they can do so before it is too late. Adding to the challenge will be the heat in Cyprus, which will still be a factor even with kick-off at 7pm local time.
Thursday’s defeat means Baraclough has still won only one match of 11 at Windsor Park during his Northern Ireland reign – a disappointing return for all involved. Northern Ireland’s players still love to play in front of the Green and White Army but the fortress reputation of the stadium is gone and their away form is better. It will be interesting to see over the next week whether Northern Ireland play with more freedom facing Cyprus in Larnaca – where around 600 travelling fans are expected – or in next week’s return fixture in Belfast.