Ian Baraclough has told his Northern Ireland players they must quickly put behind them the frustration of missing out on Euro 2020 as the World Cup qualifying campaign looms.
The hectic schedule brought about by the coronavirus pandemic leaves Northern Ireland with little time to dwell on Thursday’s 2-1 qualifying play-off defeat at home to Slovakia.
They face Nations League games against Austria and Romania on Sunday and Wednesday respectively, while next month’s draw for the World Cup qualifiers will bring another campaign immediately into focus.
Baraclough gave his players time to process their frustration on Friday morning before discussing the challenges around the next corner at a team meeting in the evening.
“We have to draw a line under it,” he said. “We pointed out that the next time we get together is a World Cup campaign so these two games immediately, they mean something.
“The next time we meet up we are straight into it. The World Cup draw is in three weeks’ time and the focus is towards Qatar in 2022 and that is how it’s got to me.”
Thursday night was only Baraclough’s sixth game in charge of Northern Ireland since he replaced Michael O’Neill in June.
He is yet to taste victory in normal time, his only win in charge the penalty shoot-out against Bosnia and Herzegovina last month, but will hope to make more of a mark on the team in the next campaign as he gets to know his players in more detail.
“It’s a real learning period for me to get to know the players, find out what makes them tick, best practice,” he said. “I know I will have a period coming up through Christmas and into March to re-evaluate what’s good and what’s not and what we can improve on.
“With having live games, you certainly know about the character of each individual.”
These Nations League games have a bearing on the World Cup draw to come, as they can affect seeding.
Northern Ireland have never enjoyed life in the tournament introduced in 2018, and their draw in Romania in September remains the only point they have earned in eight games to date.
Relegation from League B remains a real risk as they face Group 1 leaders Austria, with Baraclough’s side sitting three points adrift of second-bottom Romania who are due at Windsor Park on Wednesday in the final round of fixtures.
Northern Ireland head to Vienna without Niall McGinn, Jordan Thompson and George Saville. Saville has returned to England for personal reasons, while McGinn and Thompson picked up injuries against Slovakia.
Baraclough said McGinn would return to Aberdeen, but Stoke’s Thompson could come back into contention on Wednesday.
Austria won 1-0 at Windsor last month, having also beaten Northern Ireland home and away in the inaugural Nations League two years ago, and could be boosted by the return to action of former West Ham striker Marko Arnautovic who has jetted in from China in a bid to play.
Baraclough will perhaps look on with envy at the striking options available to Franco Foda, with goals the Achilles heel for his Northern Ireland side in recent games.
They are set to score more than one goal in any single game under Baraclough despite trying several different combinations and formations in search of a spark.
Asked if he had considered bringing in a strikers’ coach to focus on finishing, Baraclough said he was confident the solutions could be found in-house.
“The coaches I have are very, very good at what they do and the people within the group have played a lot of football, have a lot of experience and they are good coaches,” he said. “I don’t think bringing in a strikers’ coach is an option.”
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