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Ian Baraclough aware of balance but wants to pick strongest side

Northern Ireland v Austria – UEFA Nations League – Group 1 – League B – Windsor Park
(Image credit: Liam McBurney)

Ian Baraclough admitted he will be “selfish” when it comes to picking his Northern Ireland side to face Norway, but player burn-out is as much of a concern for him as it is club bosses.

With Northern Ireland having three competitive international matches crammed into the space of seven days in this international window, Baraclough’s resources are already stretched.

Baraclough knows he could make himself unpopular with club managers if he relies too heavily on the same players, but is as wary as anyone about players potentially picking up injuries a month before the Euro 2020 qualifying play-off final against Slovakia.

“I’ve got to be selfish, I’ve got to think what’s best for Northern Ireland, and I do,” he said. “But I also have to think about the balance. I don’t want to send the players back fatigued, over-used. Their club wants to play them as well.

“It’s only a three or four-week turnaround before the Slovakia game and I have to make sure I do right by the players.

“Part of my responsibility with Northern Ireland means looking after a player to make sure that he goes back to his club in good health – and then keeping fingers crossed that the club looks after him as well.”

For Sunday’s match against Austria Baraclough made five changes from the side that edged Bosnia and Herzegovina on penalties on Thursday, though it did no good as a flat Northern Ireland performance was punished by Michael Gregoritsch’s first-half header.

The back four that played 120 minutes in Sarajevo – Jamal Lewis, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart and Stuart Dallas – all played again 72 hours later, with only Dallas getting a late breather as he was brought off after 73 minutes.

Northern Ireland v Austria – UEFA Nations League – Group 1 – League B – Windsor Park

Jonny Evans has played every minute of Northern Ireland’s two matches this month so far (Liam McBurney/PA)

Wednesday’s opponents Norway ran Northern Ireland ragged last month, handing out a 5-1 mauling at Windsor Park as the hosts struggled to contain Erling Haaland without the injured Evans, leaving Baraclough with delicate decisions for the return fixture.

“There are going to be changes for Wednesday,” he said. “You can’t keep churning out the same players and expect them to perform at that level. There’ll be one or two changes for definite.

“We’ll wait until before we travel to Norway, then see where we are on Wednesday in terms of a head count.”

The primary focus for this international window was always Thursday’s match against Bosnia as Northern Ireland kept hopes alive of qualifying for Euro 2020.

But the postponement of that fixture from March has led to the packed schedule, with Thursday’s win meaning there will be a repeat next month with the play-off final against Slovakia followed by two more Nations League games in quick succession.

Northern Ireland v Norway – UEFA Nations League – Group 1 – League B – Windsor Park

Norway ran riot in a 5-1 win at Windsor Park last month (Liam McBurney/PA)

“It’s a big ask on the players,” Baraclough said. “Last month was difficult enough, but knowing that we were coming into the next bout of games, and it was going to be a triple-header, we didn’t know what to expect.

“We’re finding out about people, how to look after them, because it’s never been done before at international level.

“I’ve mentioned to the lads who want to go to a major championships that it will involve travelling, then rest and recovery, then go out and play again, getting only three, four days between each game.

“This time is a tough ask on the players, and when you have a pool of players as small as ours, compared to other countries, then it’s going to impinge on us more than others.”