Northern Ireland face Cyprus at Windsor Park on Sunday desperate to end the conversation around their long winless record in the Nations League.
Ian Baraclough faced angry fans calling on him to go after Thursday’s 3-2 defeat in Kosovo made it 13 games without a victory, and in that context this is now a must-win fixture.
Here the PA news agency looks at the key talking points ahead of the match.
Ian Baraclough has been speaking about rebuilding phases, injuries, and young players now for the past two weeks, but even though the issues facing the Northern Ireland match in this tough run of fixtures are real, a number of fans have run out of patience. The performances in the defeat to Greece here last week and the draw away to Cyprus days later were poor, and though there were improvements in Kosovo, by the time they were seen the game was already beyond Northern Ireland. Anything short of a win on Sunday will leave Baraclough facing a barrage of criticism, and there is also a feeling it will need to be a convincing win to turn the tide.
Windsor Park’s home comforts?
There is a sense that part of Baraclough’s problem has been that he has struggled to build a connection with the fans. As a man who was not a former Northern Ireland player, he did not arrive with a built-in history beyond those who paid attention to his work with the Under-21s, and could not develop one at the start of his reign as the pandemic saw games played behind closed doors. Baraclough still has only one win to his name at Windsor Park, and changing that statistic will be key to getting fans back on board.
Mixing it up
Baraclough has often preferred a 3-5-2 formation, but during this window he has frequently changed shapes. Much of that has been enforced – Northern Ireland do not have a recognised left-back in the squad due to injuries, with winger Paddy Lane struggling when asked to play wing-back before Ciaron Brown, a central defender, filled in against Kosovo. But there have been some more surprising decisions – in Pristina, Shayne Lavery spent much of the night on the right wing while Ali McCann was pushed forward just behind Kyle Lafferty. Baraclough has had to balance his resources, yes, but a constant shuffling of positions and formations has surely contributed to inconsistent displays.
One in, one out
Injury update: midfielder George Saville has withdrawn from the Northern Ireland squad for tomorrow’s UEFA Nations League game against Cyprus at the National Football Stadium due to injury #GAWApic.twitter.com/mCUezNwlVt— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) June 11, 2022
Paddy McNair was a late loss from the squad to face Kosovo after he suffered an injury on the day of the game, though the Middlesbrough man is expected to be back on Sunday after training on Saturday. But as he returns, George Saville has been ruled out with an issue of his own. Trying to predict Baraclough’s team-sheet at this point is all but impossible with too many question marks, although it seems certain that veterans Steven Davis and Jonny Evans will be asked to start a fourth game in 11 days.
Tribute to Billy
Northern Ireland landed back in Belfast on Friday to the sad news that former player and manager Billy Bingham, who led them to back-to-back World Cups in the 1980s after playing in the 1958 edition, had died at the age of 90. Jimmy Nicholl was among the first to pay tribute to a man he worked with as a player and coach, while Davis and Baraclough followed on Saturday. Windsor Park will get its turn on Sunday with plans for a minute’s applause and tributes on the video screens. Players will also wear black armbands.
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