Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland U21s believe we can qualify for Euros, says Baraclough

Confident: Ian Baraclough
Confident: Ian Baraclough

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland Under-21 manager Ian Baraclough wants his players to believe they can qualify for the 2021 European Championship finals. He certainly does.

Baraclough has done a sensational job with the Northern Ireland Under-21s, producing stunning results and developing numerous players for senior boss Michael O'Neill.

In the last campaign, Baraclough's boys were close to qualification when they finished second behind Spain in their group. The Spanish went on to win the 2019 Euro tournament. Their toughest match proved to be a defeat at home to Northern Ireland during qualifying.

This time around, Northern Ireland are in the same section as Denmark, Romania, Ukraine, Finland and Malta.

Nine group winners and the best runners-up qualify directly for the finals to be staged in Hungary and Slovenia in 2021, with the remaining eight second-placed nations entering two-legged play-offs.

Northern Ireland start their campaign at home to Malta on Friday at the Ballymena Showgrounds (7.45pm).

"Qualification is our goal," stated Baraclough. "You have to believe it can be done. We haven't got a stand-out nation like Spain in our group this time but I think as a whole the group is stronger.

"Denmark and Romania are the two top seeds and they will be tough. Having to go to Ukraine and Finland will also be difficult but, as we showed in the previous campaign, if we can get on a roll and get a good blend amongst the group and momentum, anything is possible."

On the opener against Malta, Baraclough refuses to take anything for granted.

"People will say that Malta are potentially the weakest team and we are playing them at home and that it should be a sure-fire three points, but we will have to be at the top of our game to break down what will be a resolute back 10. They will try and hit us on the counter-attack, and if we are not mentally at it we could come unstuck," he said.

Since the last campaign, Baraclough has agreed a new deal with the Irish FA to stick around.

He said: "It gives continuity. Players know I'm here for a little while longer, which is good for everyone involved, and I was more than happy to sign a new deal knowing Michael was going to be staying as well.

"It is a project, and together we are trying to progress Northern Ireland football."

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