Under-21s in must-win territory, admits Baraclough
Euro under-21 qualifier, Group 8: N Ireland v Romania, Ballymena Showgrounds, Tonight, 5.30pm
Ian Baraclough has admitted that his Northern Ireland Under-21 side need a victory at home to Romania tonight to realistically keep their hopes of qualification for the Euro 2021 finals alive.
It's a big ask given the quality in the Romanian side but Baraclough has belief in his boys ahead of the Group 8 clash at the Ballymena Showgrounds (5.30pm).
The sides met a month ago in Voluntari with Northern Ireland making a promising start, only for the game to change in the first half when goalkeeper Conor Hazard was red-carded. Romania went on to win 3-0.
They followed that up with a 4-1 victory at home to Finland last week to make it nine points from four games, and they currently sit three behind group leaders Denmark.
Northern Ireland are in fifth having claimed two points so far. Its not the start they wanted, but all is not lost, with the top four nations in the group still having to play here, beginning with Romania this evening.
Baraclough's team end their campaign by hosting Denmark, Finland and Ukraine, the other three sides in the top four.
The manager showed last time around how he can inspire the squad in crunch games, so much so that the Under-21 side almost created history by going close to qualification for the Euro 2019 finals.
Only top spot guarantees teams a place in the glamour stages of the 2021 tournament, with the runners-up in each section sure of a play-off.
"We need to get three points against Romania if we want to qualify," said straight-talking Baraclough, considered to be one of the contenders to replace Northern Ireland senior boss Michael O'Neill after the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
"If we don't win it would mean we would need an exceptional set of results in the second half of the campaign.
"Of course, we finished the last campaign strongly, and that's what the boys must try and aspire to do.
"This is a different group of players with different attributes. I think technically we are a better footballing side and I have a lot of faith in this current team."
With Cardiff's Ciaron Brown and Linfield's Shayne Lavery on duty with O'Neill's panel in Germany, Baraclough's Under-21s aren't at full strength but the manager insists that gives others a chance to step up.
"David Parkhouse had a really good season on loan with Derry City, scoring lots of goals and helping them qualify for Europe, so he should have plenty of confidence," said Baraclough.
"Glentoran's Paul O'Neill is still raw but has some great attributes and is a good finisher. Being around the squad has really helped him, and Harry Robinson, on loan from Oldham at Crusaders, is a wide player who likes to get at players and has plenty of potential."