Northern Ireland assistant boss Jimmy Nicholl says he’s still confident Ian Baraclough’s men can be fighting for World Cup qualification when Euro 2020 winners Italy arrive at Windsor Park in November.
It’s expected the classy Italians will have already qualified for Qatar 2022 as Group C winners by the time Roberto Mancini’s side conclude their qualifying campaign in Belfast on November 15.
Northern Ireland, however, face an uphill struggle to make a first World Cup finals since 1986.
A disappointing scoreless draw at home to Bulgaria has failed to lift expectations or spirits after the failure to qualify for the Euro 2020 finals.
After losing 2-0 to Italy in their opening qualifier, Northern Ireland were unable to kick on after a strong second-half showing in Parma and they now lie third in the group with a solitary point from two matches.
Group leaders Italy have three wins from three while Switzerland, who occupy the play-off spot, have six points from their opening two matches.
Northern Ireland’s next game is away to Lithuania on September 2 and if Baraclough’s men are going to have something to fight for against Italy, it will require a phenomenal effort.
With home and away matches to Switzerland still to be played, the challenge is a daunting one but Nicholl is remaining optimistic.
“Italy should have the group wrapped up by the time they come to Belfast,” said Nicholl, who played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals.
“You never underestimate any Italian side but we just have to focus on getting our campaign back on track.
“Sometimes you fear what might happen away from home against good opposition but we played well against Italy, particularly in the second half.
“The Bulgaria result was disappointing but I’m still optimistic about the group.
“There are big games coming up but I believe we can take it to the last game.
“There are signs we can improve.
“There’s always been an issue of scoring goals but it’s about finding the right blend up front.
“The players are still confident and optimistic despite the challenges that lie ahead.”
Four-time world champions Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup – the first time they didn’t make it to the showpiece in 60 years.
But under Mancini, they have been a ruthless machine.
The legends in blue have just lifted their second European title and first since 1968 with a penalty shoot-out victory over England at Wembley.
Italy have not lost a football match since September 2018 and the Euro 2020 final success means they are now unbeaten in 34 matches, their best ever run in international football, beating their previous best of 30, attained under the legendary manager Vittorio Pozzo.
During his time, Italy won their second World Cup title in 1938 and also the 1936 Olympic gold.
Mancini’s team needs to stay unbeaten in their next match to equal the all-time record of 35 matches unbeaten, which is held jointly by Brazil (1993 to 1996) and Spain (2007 to 2009).
First-half goals from Domenico Berardi and Ciro Immobile saw Italy beat Northern Ireland 2-0 in Parma but Baraclough’s side were praised for a resilient second-half display.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland midfielder Corry Evans looks set to join League One side Sunderland.
Evans is a free agent after Blackburn Rovers opted against offering the 30-year-old a new deal ahead of his contract expiry in June.
He is expected to sign a two-year deal on Wearside and will be another experienced recruit for manager Lee Johnson after Alex Pritchard’s move to the Stadium of Light from Huddersfield Town.
Cardiff City and Michael O’Neill’s Stoke City had both been linked with a move for the former Manchester United youngster, but Sunderland look poised to sign the 66-times-capped player.