Ian Baraclough not concerned over Northern Ireland’s recent lack of goals

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough is confident his side pose enough of a goal threat ahead of Thursday’s crunch Euro 2020 qualifying play-off final against Slovakia.

Baraclough’s side have scored only five goals in their last nine games, and needed penalties to get past Bosnia and Herzegovina in last month’s semi-final after the match in Sarajevo finished goalless after 120 minutes.

The need for a reliable goalscorer has been apparent for some time but Baraclough believes there are players throughout his side who can contribute.

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Conor Washington has been scoring regularly for Charlton this season (John Walton/PA)

“We have got goals in the team,” he said. “I know we’ve not been prolific of late, and since before I took over as well, but on any given occasion we know we’ve got players who can put the ball in the back of the net…

“People tend to hold their hand up in these games and make themselves heroes, and there are plenty of potential heroes in that squad that I’ve picked and they will be desperate to get their name on the scoresheet.”

Slovakia also needed penalties to get past the Republic of Ireland in their own semi-final, and Baraclough said his players have continued to work on their spot-kicks in preparation for another possible shoot-out.

“That’s something we’ve been working on for a few months,” he said. “If it needs to go there, we know we’ve got players who can last 120 minutes.

“If it goes to penalties, we know we’ve got players that can deal with that situation, but I’m sure the Slovakian camp will feel exactly the same having got through their semi-final on penalties.”

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Jonny Evans is expected to return for Leicester on Sunday (Catherine Ivill/PA)

Thursday’s squad announcement saw Ethan Galbraith get a call-up in the absence of Jordan Jones – left out following his breach of Covid-19 regulations with Rangers – while Jonny Evans was included despite missing time for Leicester with a back injury.

Baraclough expressed confidence that Evans – who could return for Leicester on Sunday – would be fit, and having his vice-captain available will be key to plans to switch between formations against Slovakia and the subsequent Nations League games against Austria and Romania.

Northern Ireland went with three at the back against Norway last month, with a 1-0 defeat in Oslo a better performance than a 5-1 rout at Windsor Park in September – a match for which Evans was absent – and Baraclough plans to use the formation again.

“Against Slovakia and in the next three games we can flick between a three and four in defence and the players are happy at doing that,” he said.

“We’re always learning, always finding out more. I think three at the back is a great way of springing forward and having an attacking way about you.

Norway v Northern Ireland – UEFA Nations League – Group 1 – League B – Ullevaal Stadion
Daniel Ballard played in a back three for Northern Ireland against Norway (Fredrikh Hagen/PA)

“People will say it is a five, and you do have to defend as a five in that three, but it can also be a very effective way of playing.”

Thursday will be Baraclough’s sixth game in charge, but one which could put him in a select group if he becomes only the fourth manager to lead Northern Ireland to a major championships.

“I don’t feel there is any extra pressure on my shoulders, or the group’s shoulders,” he said. “It’s a big game, we all like to be involved in massive games and this is one of them.

“This is the next one ahead of us and we’ll prepare for it the best way we can. Maybe in years to come you look back and think, ‘Wow, that was a big game and we enjoyed that’. It’s one of those things, as a professional, you just deal with what’s ahead of you.”

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