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Let's leave the Euros in the past and focus on making our World Cup dream a reality, insists Baraclough

 

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Ian Baraclough must quickly pick up his players after Thursday’s disappointment (Brian Lawless/PA)

Ian Baraclough must quickly pick up his players after Thursday’s disappointment (Brian Lawless/PA)

Ian Baraclough must quickly pick up his players after Thursday’s disappointment (Brian Lawless/PA)

With emotions still raw, shellshocked players numb and devastated in the dressing room, Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough, in the immediate aftermath of the defeat to Slovakia on Thursday night, admitted it may take months for his squad to get over the heartache of Euros elimination.

Twenty-four hours later, Baraclough called a meeting at the team hotel to insist his players park any negative thoughts, turn their focus to this evening's Nations League encounter with Austria at the Ernst Happel Stadium and enthused about the 2022 World Cup qualifiers which start in March.

Usually after finishing a qualifying campaign, it's around 10 months before the next one starts, and never during the same season. But due to Covid-19 implementing a freeze on football around the globe this year and postponing the Euro Play-Offs until the autumn, the next international window in March will start the proposed journey to Qatar for the first ever winter World Cup in 2022.

Senior players, who were maybe considering their international futures, suddenly realise, considering the group stages of qualifying will be concluded by next November, that they still have plenty to offer in a green shirt.

"Friday was a slow burner," conceded Baraclough, who arrived in Vienna with his squad last night.

"People were getting up when they wanted and we left them to their own devices in the morning. There was a small group who maybe didn't play on Thursday or played a little who trained in the afternoon, and it was a really bright session.

"After that we met as a group in the evening and I tried to state to the players that we need to move on. We have to draw a line under it. We pointed out that the next time we get together is a World Cup campaign, so these two games against Austria and Romania mean something.

"But the next time we meet up (in March) we are straight into it. The World Cup draw is in three weeks' time and our focus should be towards Qatar in 2022, and that is how it's got to be. We saw players going out of the room thinking the World Cup is so close and we're straight into another campaign. Fortunately we get another chance and that all starts next March."

To avail of a favourable World Cup group when the draw is made in Zurich on December 7, Northern Ireland will need to remain in Group B of the Nations League, otherwise relegation will not only send Baraclough's men down to the third tier of European football but it will mean they'll go up against two higher-ranked nations, rather than one, during the campaign.

Northern Ireland, after a draw with Romania in Bucharest and defeats to Norway home and away, along with Austria's triumph in Belfast, currently lie bottom of Group B1 on one point, three points adrift of third-placed Romania.

Realistically, with two games remaining, it looks as though Northern Ireland need to beat Romania on Wednesday night and pick up a point this evening against an Austrian side who are battling Norway for top spot in the group. The Austrians will be packed full of quality, with Bayern Munich's outstanding full-back David Alaba, skipper Julian Baumgartlinger and striker Michael Gregoritsch set for starring roles, with Northern Ireland's former nemesis Marko Arnautovic possibly making a cameo appearance.

He said: "I think they are the stand-out team in this group, but there is no reason why we should go there and fear them. If we can play our game, take the game to them and create chances then we know we can get a positive result. We've been guilty in recent times of not taking those chances and not being clinical enough. It's not just strikers, it's everybody in the team who gets an opportunity. The onus should not just be on the forwards to score."

Any positive result for Northern Ireland could be in vain though as it is believed Covid related issues mean Norway can't travel to Romania for tonight's match, the game is off, and a UEFA committee will decide if the Romanians are awarded a 3-0 win, which would guarantee their safety in the group.

But that will be decided at a later stage.

Tonight, Baraclough will not be able to call upon George Saville (personal reasons), Niall McGinn and Jordan Thompson (both injured). Stoke midfielder Thompson is the only one of the trio who has a chance of playing against Romania on Wednesday but he has already returned to his club for assessment.

Every other member of the squad, including Craig Cathcart and Paddy McNair, who hobbled off on Thursday, and Steven Davis and Jonny Evans, who appeared to tighten up towards the end, trained yesterday morning and have declared themselves ready for tonight's match. Even Stuart Dallas, involved in a crunching tackle against Slovakia which left him in agony and holding his arm, wants to play.

Baraclough, though, will likely shuffle his pack, with St Johnstone winger Ali McCann in line for his debut, defender Daniel Ballard set for more international experience and veteran keeper Michael McGovern set to be in goal, with Bailey Peacock-Farrell making way.

"They all trained yesterday morning and, even though it was a light session, they were all on the grass, and that is a positive. There are some tired legs and stiff bodies but another 24 hours before the game that will improve and we will be ready to go again," said Baraclough.

"Any time the players are given the honour of pulling on the Northern Ireland shirt, it raises them to a different level. You saw that with Stuart the other night. There was no way he was going to come off with that injury and that was not knowing whether he had broken it or damaged it badly. He's had an X-ray, he is fine. But he was in a lot of pain. However, nothing was going to hold him back and it is spirit like that which makes it such a special group."

Over the years, Northern Ireland have surprisingly bounced back after adversity.

Following a devastating late defeat to the Netherlands in Rotterdam last year, they stunned England's conquerors, the Czech Republic, in Prague just a few days later. How they would love to take their frustrations out on Austria tonight.

It may not erode the bitter memories of a Play-Off defeat, but it would go some way to restoring belief in the camp.

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