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I'm happy for the critics to write us off because I have faith in my players, says NI boss Baraclough

Manager happy to be underdogs as he has full belief in his men


High praise: Northern Ireland’s Ethan Galbraith has been compared with Spain greats Xavi and Andres Iniesta

High praise: Northern Ireland’s Ethan Galbraith has been compared with Spain greats Xavi and Andres Iniesta

High praise: Northern Ireland’s Ethan Galbraith has been compared with Spain greats Xavi and Andres Iniesta

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough says he's happy for his side's Euro 2020 hopes to be dismissed because he knows his underdogs will have a fierce bite in Thursday's play-off final at Windsor Park.

Slovakia, who overcame the Republic of Ireland in a penalty shoot-out in their scoreless semi-final, will be desperate to break Northern Ireland hearts and progress to next summer's showpiece.

But Baraclough, who steered his troops into the decider with a stunning spot-kick success in Bosnia, insists his boys have nothing to fear as they chase back-to-back European Championship final appearances.

"We know the expectation levels and it's been stated to me that we will still be the underdogs going into this game," said Baraclough, who named his squad yesterday.

"Slovakia have got some good players, playing at a good level, but I'd be amazed if any squad around the world has the same club feeling to it as ours when we meet up.

"There is that togetherness and drive that means a lot. I'm all for people writing us off, they can say what they want. It is all background noise to us.

"We have a good habit of being able to block out that noise. There's a focus on what we need to do and the four days in the run-up to the game are important.

"We will go in with confidence. We have respect for the opposition but certainly no fear.

"There's a group of players that are determined to go and reach another Euros. To lead that group is brilliant for me. The senior pros have been driving the group along, we have young players who are hungry to taste the success other players have.

"The 2016 players have been sharing their experiences and as a group we all want to be part of the finals again."

If Northern Ireland triumph on Thursday they will face Spain, Poland and Sweden in the group stages next summer.

Manchester United midfielder Ethan Galbraith, Aberdeen winger Matthew Kennedy and Celtic goalkeeper Conor Hazard are the new faces in the squad with Baraclough confident Leicester City defender Jonny Evans will be fit.

Northern Ireland's promising young players are often unfairly dubbed the next George Best but Baraclough chose to compare Galbraith to two Spain legends.

The Leicester man would love to have a Xavi or Andres Iniesta in their prime in his squad for the play-off final but for now he'll have to dream of the Manchester United midfielder showcasing his undoubted talent on the big stage.

The comparison with one of world football's greatest ever double acts for Barcelona and Spain may be a little far-fetched but it does hint at the excitement surrounding the progress of the 19-year-old from Glengormley.

Galbraith joined United from Linfield three years ago and made his debut against Astana in the Europa League last season.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rewarded him with a contract extension until 2023, plus the option of another year.

"Over the last six months we have seen a maturity in his play, in the way he goes about his work, and he excelled in the Under-21s," said Baraclough. "I think he's a different type of player to what we have got and not to put too much pressure on his shoulders but he's our little Iniesta and Xavi who wants to get on the ball and find positive passes.

"Hopefully, it's the start of a long career for him and he relishes his time from the start in the squad rather than being brought in from the Under-21s. He has earned that call-up with the way he has gone about his play with Manchester United over the last six months.

"In the past with Northern Ireland we've had to bring players in before they have even played for their club and Daniel Ballard had played three international games before three club games. At times we have to do that but it's not just done because he plays for Manchester United.

"I've had conversations with Michael (O'Neill) about Ethan when he was in charge, as we do with all the younger players, and I feel it's right he got international experience with the Under-21s. He's playing regularly for United's Under-23s as the best player on the pitch and been around Ole's first team.

"He's ready for the step up and he has to show how he has grown on the pitch. I'm confident he can keep making forward strides. I know what the young players can do and what their potential is having worked with them.

"Conor Hazard has been brought in following Trevor's injury which has left him distraught. He was back in the Motherwell team and played well against Norway, he's a valued member of the squad and we wish him well in his recovery.

"Conor has been consistent with the Under-21s and deserves his spot."

Aberdeen winger Kennedy and Galbraith have replaced Rangers winger Jordan Jones, who has been excluded from the squad after breaking Covid-19 protocols at Ibrox, and Oxford United winger Joel Cooper. After the Slovakia showdown, Northern Ireland face Nations League matches in Austria on November 15 and at home to Romania on November 18.

Napoli ace Stanislav Lobotka and Inter Milan defender Milan Skriniar missed Slovakia's play-off semi-final against the Republic of Ireland due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and their return would be a massive lift for the visitors.

"They are two top teams in the Italian league and for them to return will be a big boost for them," admitted former Sligo boss Baraclough. "We've got a big task ahead, we know that, but we are confident with the group we have. The players have been together for a long time and there's a good feel about the camp.

"Last month felt an improvement. We are getting used to working within the Covid restraints and there was a buoyant mood leading into the Bosnia game. I haven't got any reason to believe it won't be like that next week when we meet up."

Belfast Telegraph