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Ian Baraclough only has eyes for Slovakia despite Nations League struggles

Norway v Northern Ireland – UEFA Nations League – Group 1 – League B – Ullevaal Stadion
(Image credit: Fredrikh Hagen)

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough knows Wednesday’s defeat to Norway means his side face a fight to avoid relegation in the Nations League but is thinking only of next month’s Euro 2020 qualifying play-off final against Slovakia.

Northern Ireland’s Nations League frustrations continued as a side featuring 10 changes battled hard in Oslo but fell to a 1-0 defeat courtesy of a cruel Stuart Dallas own goal in the 67th minute.

It was a seventh loss in eight for Northern Ireland in the short history of a competition which has never been their friend, and it left them three points adrift of Romania at the foot of Group B1 ahead of the final two games next month.

But those matches – away to group leaders Austria and then at home to Romania – come after the crucial Slovakia clash on November 12, and all eyes are on that match and the chance to reach a second consecutive European Championships.

With that in mind, Baraclough was determined to focus on the positives of Wednesday’s performance as Northern Ireland came through three competitive games in the space of seven days, a run which started with 120 tense, nervous minutes in Sarajevo before their penalty shoot-out success over Bosnia.

“I’m disappointed to have only picked up a point out of the (Nations League) games so far,” he said.

“But when you’re having to deal with a big game like Bosnia, the play-off and the emotions and the mental aspect of that game and what it might mean, we have to look after players, we have a responsibility.

“A country like ours, we’re small, we’ve only got a small pool of players to choose from. If we leave three or four out then we certainly feel that pinch.”

Jonny Evans was the only player to retain his place in the side.

The defender was never due to play the full 90 minutes, but was replaced at half-time after appearing to pull up and will be assessed upon his return to Leicester.

After Norway ran riot in a 5-1 win at Windsor Park last month, there were some fears of a repeat as Baraclough turned to many of his less experienced squad players in Oslo, but their battling performance gave the manager something to think about as Daniel Ballard was among those to catch the eye.

“To know that we’ve got players that can step up and it didn’t weaken us as such, we went and played a different way, we threw a different formation at them with a couple of days to play, I’m delighted with them,” he said.

Northern Ireland only escaped relegation from the inaugural Nations League two years ago when the tournament was reformatted, but League C beckons unless they can turn things around next month.

The Slovakia appointment will understandably take priority, but Baraclough will hope his side are still in with a shout of avoiding the drop by the time they face Romania at home in their final game on November 18.

“We want to win every game,” he said “These games have shown me a lot about the boys and their mentality and a lot of positives.

“Once we have got the Slovakia game out of the way then we have the two Nations League games and we want to get points and give ourselves a chance of staying in the group.”