Italian job needed for Baraclough’s men to reach Qatar


Northern Ireland fans would have been looking at the early stages of Monday’s World Cup qualifying draw thinking that Group C was the one to avoid.

Italy and Switzerland drawn together from the opening two pots led to much quivering among fans as the pedigree of these two nations was not lost on anyone. Unfortunately for Ian Baraclough, that’s exactly where they landed and now face a daunting task to reach a first World Cup since their memorable adventure in 1982.

It’s been a difficult start so far for the former Scunthorpe, Sligo Rovers and Motherwell manager with his side yet to pick up a win in 90 minutes. A miserable Nations league campaign ended in relegation after only picking up two points from six games.

They now find themselves looking at the prospect of League C with the likes of Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and Lithuania. They did however pick up a famous penalty shootout victory in Bosnia in the play-offs for Euro 2020 which set up the Windsor Park showdown with Slovakia.

This was where the dream of a second consecutive European Championship appearance ended with Slovakia advancing after extra time. Baraclough’s difficulties were laid bare as he is in desperate need of a goalscorer.

Players like Josh Magennis, Liam Boyce and Conor Washington all work hard for the cause but lack that bit of quality to make the difference at this level. They’ll need to find goals from somewhere if they are to stand any chance of reaching Qatar. With that in mind, lets take a look at the challenges that lie ahead.


While it can be argued that the likes of Spain and France were the teams that everyone wanted to avoid from Pot One, drawing a resurgent Italy is not something to be celebrated. Roberto Mancini’s men are unbeaten in their last 22 games, a run stretching over two years, and will be gunning for qualification after missing out on Russia in 2018.

The Italians blew away their opponents in qualifying for Euro 2020 with a 100 percent record. They have a wonderful squad at the minute with a nice blend of youth and experience. Gianuigi Donnarumma is a world class goalkeeper and sits behind a defence including Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. Young midfielder Sandro Tonali looks an exciting prospect as does Nicolo Zaniolo of Roma. If Ciro Immobile can translate his club form onto the international scene, Mancini could be looking forward to the World Cup final itself, let alone qualifying for it.


With only one win in their last eight games and only avoiding relegation due to a Covid assisted walkover against Ukraine, Switzerland would appear to be a winnable encounter at this present moment. The qualification record of Vladimir Petkovic’s side would suggest otherwise.

The Swiss have reached the last four World Cups and have only missed out on one major tournament since 2002. They know how to get the job done. An experienced backline gives them the platform to build upon and allows players like Breel Embolo and Remo Freuler to make an impact at the other end.

Switzerland also possess the luxury of players that perform better for their country than their club. Granit Xhaka has had high profile difficulties at Arsenal while Xherdan Shaqiri has struggled for fitness and consistency since joining Liverpool. There can be no questions regarding their international performances though, with Shaqiri in particular proving to be a talismanic figure over the years.

There’s also the small matter of revenge after Switzerland’s highly controversial 1-0 aggregate win in the 2018 World Cup play-offs. What better way to get your own back than returning the favour four years later.


Hristo Stoichkov. Dimitar Berbatov. Krasimir Balakov. What Bulgaria would give for a player of that calibre these days. The former World Cup semi-finalists have managed just two wins in their last 22 games and have sunk to League C of the Nations League, even finishing below a shot shy Republic of Ireland.

Their own goal scoring record makes them ideal opponents for Northern Ireland. Since August 2017, they’ve only managed to score more than one goal in a match four times, which suggests it will be two very close encounters. Northern Ireland will really need to win both of these games if they are to stand any chance and it would be no surprise to witness two 1-0 victories during this campaign.


Lithuania complete the group and could be an awkward opponent for Baraclough’s men. They didn’t pull up any trees in their Nations League campaign and endured a horrendous qualifying campaign for Euro 2020, picking up just a single point.

Their recent form however has improved a bit, only losing twice and picking up four wins in the process. A caveat must be added though that most of these games were against teams of a similar standard. Northern Ireland will be aiming to be a cut above in this campaign. It will also be two games where the likes of Magennis and co. could do with finding their shooting boots, as goal difference could come into play.


As if the draw itself isn’t tough enough, an opening encounter with Italy is the worst possible way to try and build momentum. This is followed by a home clash with Bulgaria and anything better than three points from that opening set of games will instantly spell worry. Baraclough will be pleased though that they finish off with a home double header against Lithuania and possibly an already qualified Italy.

In terms of away days for fans, Covid will probably render a trip to Italy out of reach at this stage. Next Autumn does bring the other three away games and while Switzerland is a very expensive trip, Bulgaria and Lithuania aren’t too far out of reach and would represent great trips for travelling supporters.

Northern Ireland have very little margin for error in this group and while they’ve upset the odds before, Baraclough should be given this campaign as part of a longer term project and build towards Euro 2024. At the very least, this group has exciting games to look forward to and remember, David did beat Goliath.

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