Ian Baraclough has insisted he and his players can handle the heat as Northern Ireland’s Nations League form remains under scrutiny.
Thursday’s 1-0 home loss to Greece meant Northern Ireland remain winless after 11 games in this competition, losing nine, something they must seek to change in the soaring temperatures of Larnaca when they face Cyprus on Sunday.
Starting a third consecutive Nations League campaign with a defeat leaves Northern Ireland already needing to make up ground in their bid to escape League C and earn a shot at a Euro qualifying play-off, but Baraclough shrugged off a question about pressure.
“That’s why they’re here,” he said. “They can deal with pressure. They have it all the time in club football. Whether you’re a player, coach, manager, you deal with it. It’s what you expect, otherwise you’re in the wrong game…
“There is pressure on every game… We know we are in the game to win games.
“The fans come first, they pay their hard-earned money and when you travel to see your team play, you want to see performances and myself, the players and coaching staff know what our responsibilities are.
“If we get the process right and do the things we know we are good at, I’m sure that will come.”
The Nations League itself has again been questioned in the last few days as the idea of bolting four competitive internationals on to the end of an already long season drew criticism from several players.
UEFA designed the competition to replace the bulk of the unpopular friendlies, but Kevin De Bruyne spoke the thoughts of many when he said these games were simply “glorified friendlies” that have not changed much.
For nations like Northern Ireland, the loss of those friendlies means young players often need to be blooded in competitive fixtures, sometimes at the cost of results, sometimes at the cost of opportunities for those very players as game situations require Baraclough to change his plans.
Even so, the manager insisted he remains a fan of the competition.
“There is something on it,” he said. “I’m not in the camp of ‘glorified friendlies’. If we have a chance to get to a Euro play-off we are doing our damnedest to give ourselves that opportunity…
“I’m selecting from 50-odd players now whereas when I took over and when Michael (O’Neill) was in charge it probably wasn’t as big as that.
“It’s a case of giving ourselves that competition and knowing players are able and ready to step in. You have to give them experience and see them in that situation and how they react in that situation.
“How do young players deal with disappointment and how do they react within the group? Unless you give them that experience you are not going to find out.”
Baraclough blamed rustiness for Northern Ireland’s slow start in Belfast on Thursday, and a lack of match fitness among players who had several weeks between competitive fixtures is unlikely to be aided by the heat in Cyprus, which is expected to be just under 30 degrees come kick-off at 7pm local time.
Northern Ireland pushed back their training session on Saturday to the same time slot in a bid to mirror the expected conditions, but there is only so much they can do to acclimatise after several days in Belfast.
“I don’t enjoy (the heat),” Jonny Evans said. “We’ve all experienced it in the past and hopefully we can use that experience.
“Water breaks will be a nice thing to have during the game but in those moments you have to use your experience in slowing the game down at the right times and using intensity at the right times.”
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