Ian Baraclough revealed Gianluca Vialli compared Northern Ireland’s defensive performance to a “typical Italian masterclass” after they frustrated the European champions in a 0-0 draw that leaves Italy facing the World Cup qualifying play-offs.
Roberto Mancini’s side arrived at Windsor Park needing a victory to top Group C and secure a ticket to Qatar but could not find a way to score against a Northern Ireland side who have not conceded at home throughout the qualifying campaign.
Jonny Evans, whose absence during the crunch part of the qualifying campaign perhaps proved the difference for Northern Ireland, was immense at the heart of defence but there were brilliant performances across the pitch in the best display of Baraclough’s tenure.
“I think the players have to take massive credit for taking on board what was thrown at them, not just the starting eleven but also the players coming off the bench,” said Baraclough, who spoke to Mancini’s assistant Vialli as they walked off the pitch.
“At the end, Gianluca Vialli had a few words and said that was a typical Italian masterclass defensive performance, so I’ll take that and the boys can be proud of that.
“To be compared to a performance they can normally churn out, you know you’re probably doing something right.”
Having frustrated Italy for long periods, Northern Ireland had chances to snatch what would have been a famous victory.
The best of them came in the last minute of the 90 when substitute Conor Washington beat Gianluigi Donnarumma to the ball as the goalkeeper raced off his line, but having run into the box the Charlton striker scuffed his shot and Leonardo Bonucci cleared off the line.
“Totally!” Baraclough said when asked if he thought that was the moment Northern Ireland would win the game.
“His composure having won the ball and taken it away from Donnarumma, to then cut back inside and go on to his left, a lot of people would have shot with the right then, his stronger foot, but he cut inside. He couldn’t quite get the connection and Bonucci like the top-class defender he is read the situation.”
Northern Ireland have endured ups and downs throughout qualifying: injuries have taken a major toll, the key defeat at Switzerland came with a controversial red card for Jamal Lewis, while a poor second half against Bulgaria came at a huge cost.
But Monday’s performance shows what Northern Ireland are capable of on their best nights.
“We have to make sure now that when we have got games in our grasp that we finish them,” Baraclough said.
“When you come up against top nations, we know we can achieve something if we put our minds to it, if we put our minds and bodies on the line. It’s against the so-called lesser nations that we have fallen down, we’ve got to put the sword to them.”
🗣️ #Mancini: "Despite controlling matches, we're struggling to score goals at the moment. We needed to score early on tonight. It's a shame because we should have finished things off sooner in this group."#NIRITA #WCQ #VivoAzzurro pic.twitter.com/3h8maaED9t— Italy ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (@Azzurri_En) November 15, 2021
Northern Ireland’s pride was matched by Italy’s pain as the chance to top the group eluded them.
They missed the 2018 World Cup after suffering defeat to Sweden in the qualifying play-offs four years ago, and now face the same jeopardy again.
“We’re sorry, things were more complicated than they needed to be,” Mancini said. “There were moments when things didn’t go particularly well. The group should have been resolved a while ago but we need to stay calm. There is still the possibility to qualify.”
Asked if the pressure had affected his players in Belfast, the former Manchester City manager said: “Probably in the second half in that we missed chances. We had one or two chances for a goal.
“But not before. We played well in the first half and also had chances but it was difficult because they had a lot of players behind the ball.”