Northern Ireland U21s can challenge for Euro qualification, says Baraclough
Northern Ireland Under-21 boss Ian Baraclough believes his side have been handed some tough hurdles in the Euro 2021 qualifiers.
Baraclough's boys were placed in Pot E for the draw in Nyon, Switzerland and pitted against Denmark, Romania, Ukraine, Finland and Malta in Group Eight.
Denmark and Romania have qualified for next year's finals in Italy while Northern Ireland's rising stars narrowly missed out on qualification despite finishing second in an impressive campaign which included a 2-1 victory over Spain in Albacete.
Northern Ireland avoided big guns Spain, France, England, Portugal and Germany in the draw but Baraclough said: "Four of the teams have been seeded better than us, however if we do similar to the last campaign and continue the upward trend then I am sure we will be challenging at the top of the group.
"How can you not be inspired by taking three points off Spain away from home and finishing the group the way we did? We are on a run of victories and we want to carry that through. Hopefully we can continue the good work and keep moving forward."
Northern Ireland moved up from 48th out of 55 teams to 37th place in the Uefa U21 rankings but that was still not enough to put them in Pot D for the draw.
Eleven of the players from the Northern Ireland U21 squad which finished the 2019 qualifying campaign with a 1-0 win over Slovakia back in October will be eligible to play in the 2021 qualifiers - plus a few others who were in and around the squad.
The Republic of Ireland face a tough task in Group One against Italy and Sweden. The Republic will also face Iceland, Armenia and Luxembourg as they hope to improve on their third-place finish in the Euro 2019 qualifiers.
The 2021 Championships will be jointly hosted by Hungary and Slovenia and Northern Ireland's first Group 8 qualifier is expected to be played next September.
2021 UEFA U21 Championship qualifying draw
Group 1: Italy, Sweden, Iceland, Republic of Ireland, Armenia, Luxembourg
Group 2: France, Slovakia, Switzerland, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein
Group 3: England, Austria, Turkey, Kosovo, Albania, Andorra
Group 4: Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Scotland, Lithuania, San Marino
Group 5: Serbia, Poland, Russia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia
Group 6: Spain, Israel, Montenegro, FYR Macedonia, Kazakhstan, Faroe Islands
Group 7: Portugal, Netherlands, Norway, Belarus, Cyprus, Gibraltar
Group 8: Denmark, Romania, Ukraine, Finland, Northern Ireland, Malta
Group 9: Germany, Belgium, Wales, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova