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Dallas taking positives from Italy defeat but admits it's crucial NI pick up points against Bulgaria

 

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Parma regrets: Michael Smith and Josh Magennis cut frustrated figures in Italy

Parma regrets: Michael Smith and Josh Magennis cut frustrated figures in Italy

Parma regrets: Michael Smith and Josh Magennis cut frustrated figures in Italy

Two words you are going to be sick of hearing by Wednesday are 'must-win'.

Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifying dream was never going to die at the Ennio Tardini Stadium but it could fade away at an eerily quiet Windsor Park on Wednesday night.

The squad will be utilised in the friendly against USA in Belfast tomorrow but the pressure is already building for the Bulgaria test in midweek.

Northern Ireland's defeat in Italy was no surprise, even if the errors that led to the two goals were disappointing.

But if Bulgaria are not put to the sword next week then the road to Qatar is going nowhere fast.

The simple reality is that if Ian Baraclough's side are to inflict any damage in Group C, they must cut out their defensive frailties and score goals.

A positive is that opportunities were created against an Italian side that has now gone more than 300 minutes without conceding.

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And the second-half performance against a side ranked No.10 in the world offers hope.

If Northern Ireland are beating themselves up over their first-half display in Parma, a measure of their improvement in the second period is the post-match noise in the home camp of how they were given a wake-up call.

Giorgio Chiellini noted: "It was a very good first half, in the second we made a few too many mistakes.

"It's the kind of game I really enjoy playing, because they are physical and dangerous on the second ball or set-plays."

His Juventus team-mate Leonardo Bonucci, who celebrated his 100th cap, added: "It's important that we kept a clean sheet, even if we made a lot of mistakes in the second half and need to improve, especially when we're in possession."

Boss Roberto Mancini said: "We'll have to review the second half with the team, because we must do better than that.

"Perhaps we started to take a few too many touches after the break and the ball moved slowly, but that can happen after five months of not seeing each other."

Such is the life of a goalkeeper, the spotlight has fallen sharply on Bailey Peacock-Farrell and his lack of match sharpness is a worry.

For that reason alone, Baraclough should play him against the USA tomorrow.

The 3-5-2 formation needs to be abandoned for Bulgaria who must have the kitchen sink, microwave and fridge thrown at them. It will be a more attacking line-up with a more forward-thinking mindset, however the lack of goals from open play and set-pieces is a concern.

Paddy McNair and Stuart Dallas need to advance to more attacking roles and the reality is this is a 90-minute game that requires a 90-minute performance.

It's time for the passive starts to be banished.

Leeds United ace Dallas accepts the defeat in Italy has placed further importance on the Bulgaria game.

"We need to start winning games again," said the former Crusaders man. "The Bulgaria game is a must-win one and we always knew that, it's important to take points in those games.

"Italy was a tough ask but we can take a lot from our second-half performance.

"We had chances to get something out of the game but we showed them too much respect in the first half.

"In the second half we gave it a good go and won possession. On another night we could have got something out of the game.

"It was a learning curve for everyone, there were lessons to be learned by us all playing against a top nation like that. It should stand us in good stead."

Former Northern Ireland winger Keith Gillespie also recognises the importance of a win on Wednesday.

"We are in the position we thought we would be in going into the Bulgaria game," said the former Manchester United and Newcastle United ace who won 86 caps.

"Ian must make sure the players are ready because although it's the second game it's a must-win if we want to have a chance of finishing second in the group.

"We need to be beating Bulgaria and Lithuania home and away and take points off Switzerland. If we lose against Bulgaria you can kiss goodbye already after two games. This next one is a definite must-win game."

Hearts striker Liam Boyce and Newcastle United defender Jamal Lewis could return for the Bulgaria game and winger Jordan Jones may also be back in the squad after a positive injury update from Sunderland boss Lee Johnson.

"It's probably 70-30 against him playing (against Bristol Rovers on Saturday), but he's certainly out there buzzing about, which is good," said Johnson yesterday.

The USA game is a sideshow. Baraclough must find the winning formula on Wednesday.


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