Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland U21s fell short of target but there are positives: Baraclough

On target: Lewis Thompson (right) scored against Finland
On target: Lewis Thompson (right) scored against Finland

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland Under-21 manager Ian Baraclough set his side a target of four points from their opening two Euro 2021 qualifiers and, while that goal wasn't achieved, he remains content with their progress.

Baraclough's boys fought back to earn a 1-1 draw in Finland on Tuesday night having started their campaign with a 0-0 draw at home to Malta last week.

The results leave Northern Ireland in fourth place early on in what promises to be a tight six-team group.

Only the nation who finish top of the table are guaranteed a place in the 2021 finals to be staged in Hungary and Slovenia, with the best runner-up from the nine groups also making it through. The remaining eight second-placed countries take part in play-offs.

Finland are in first at present with four points, Ukraine and Denmark have three points, with Northern Ireland next and Malta (one point) and Romania (zero points) occupying the bottom two spots.

Baraclough's side have a tough double-header on the road next month, away to Denmark on October 10 and then against Romania four days later. They don't play at home again until November 19 when Romania make the trip.

"We wanted four points from the first two games and we were close to achieving that," stated Baraclough.

"Next up we have two tough games playing Denmark and Romania away from home. They are the top two seeds and both were in the Euro finals earlier this year, so we know how hard that will be."

Against Finland, Northern Ireland skipper Conor Hazard made some fine saves in the opening exchanges, though the Celtic ace could do little when Onni Valakari netted just four minutes in.

It looked like a long night at that stage but the visitors found their feet, with Jake Dunwoody hitting the woodwork prior to a 35th-minute equaliser from Blackburn Rovers teenager Lewis Thompson after Ethan Galbraith's drive had been saved.

Northern Ireland went close to winning it, with Lewis McCann, Alfie McCalmont, substitute Kyle McClean, Dunwoody and Caolan Boyd-Munce all having efforts on goal.

"We were on the back foot for the first 20 minutes and didn't start well. They created chances and Conor Hazard had to make a few saves. After that we grew into the game and played with more confidence and were more positive," said Baraclough.

In the second half, Jack Scott (16) and Callum Ferris (18) came on and there was an Under-21 debut for Glenavon defender Caolan Marron.

"We had a 16-year-old coming on at right-back, Jack Scott, who did ever so well," said Baraclough.

"Callum Ferris and Ethan Galbraith were also playing against older players and did very well, which should bode well for their futures."

On scoring the crucial leveller, Thompson said: "I was delighted to get my first goal for Northern Ireland. I was on the end of a rebound and it was great to score as it got us back into the game.

"After that we had much more play and a few more chances. We have not hit our target for the two games but we are unbeaten, and I think that is important."

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