Kosovo will be a tough nut for Northern Ireland to crack when the two countries face each other in the UEFA Nations League in Pristina tonight, according to Ian Baraclough.
But the Northern Ireland boss is confident his side can bounce back from a couple of flat performances in their opening two Nations League games. They lost 1-0 to Greece in Belfast last Thursday and then drew 0-0 away to Cyprus on Sunday.
“We are all disappointed with the performances and the results, and we need to improve on that. I think there will be a renewed energy,” he told media yesterday ahead of the match in the Kosovan capital.
Baraclough said Kosovo are a strong side and that his team will have to be at their best to get a positive result at the Stadiumi Fadil Vokrri (7.45 start, UK time).
He further said he can understand why the Green and White Army have been frustrated by the team’s results to date in the third edition of the Nations League.
"They (the fans) spend their money on travelling to follow the team. We don't take that for granted as a group of people. There is just as much frustration within the dressing room as there is on the terraces, I can assure you,” he stressed.
"We hope to give them something to smile about and to shout about in a positive way."
He also noted “the confidence is there” and “the belief is there” within the Northern Ireland squad to turn things around.
There will be circa 500 Northern Ireland fans in the 13,500-capacity stadium for the game, which is a sell-out.
Kosovo, who are managed by former France midfielder Alain Giresse, will be without two key players for tonight’s encounter. Goalkeeper Aro Muric, currently on loan with Adana Demirspor in Turkey’s Super Lig from Manchester City, and FC Zurich centre back Fidan Aliti are both suspended after being sent off in their country’s 1-0 loss to Greece on Sunday.
Also missing through injury is the influential defender Mergim Vojvoda, who operates at right back for Torino in Italy’s Serie A.
The Kosovans, third seeds in the group behind Northern Ireland (top seeds) and Greece, have three points on the board in C2 after they defeated Cyprus 2-0 away in their opening fixture.
The Kosovo goalkeeping berth will likely be filled by Samir Ujkani, who plays his club football in Italy with Empoli and has already played 34 times for this country.
Like Northern Ireland, the Kosovans have a mix of youth and experience in their squad.
Captain Amir Rrahmani, who plays for Napoli in Italy, is a stalwart of the team along with Norwich City attacking midfielder Milot Rashica and Real Mallorca forward Vedat Muriqi.
Their goals against Cyprus in Larnaca last week were scored by midfielder Valon Berisha and striker Edon Zhegrova. Berisha and Zhegrova both play their club football in France, with Reims and Lille respectively.
Among their up and coming stars are midfielders Betim Fazliji and Blendi Idrizi. St Gallen in Switzerland are Fazliji’s club side, while Idrizi plies his trade with Schalke in Germany’s Bundesliga.