Ian Baraclough says his team will face some “very, very tough games” in their next U21 Euros qualifying campaign.
The Northern Ireland Under-21s boss admitted today’s draw for the 2021 qualifiers “could have been a lot worse”.
But he stressed there will be “no easy games” when they take on Denmark, Romania, Ukraine, Finland and Malta in 2019 and 2020.
Baraclough said he was relieved to have avoided the likes of Spain, France, England, Portugal and Germany, who are all traditionally strong at U21 level, in the qualifying draw.
However, he was quick to point out that group opponents Denmark and Romania are both through to next year’s U21 Euros in Italy and San Marino and will no doubt have strength in depth.
Northern Ireland have moved up from 48thout of 55 teams to 37thplace in the UEFA U21 rankings following a strong qualification campaign for the 2019 tournament, but that was still not enough to put them in Pot 4 for today’s draw in Switzerland.
Instead Baraclough’s team were in Pot 5 and it means Group 8 opponents Denmark, Romania, Ukraine and Finland are all ranked higher than them.
“Four of the teams have been seeded better than us, however if we do similar to the last campaign and continue the upward trend then I am sure we will be challenging at the top of the group,” he said.
Baraclough’s side finished second to Spain in Qualifying Group 2 for the 2019 U21 Euros. During the campaign they amassed 20 points and a famous away win against Spain was among the highlights.
The U21s boss said he hopes the win in Spain in particular will inspire his next crop of players.
“How can you not be inspired by taking three points off Spain away from home and finishing the group the way we did? We are on a run of victories and we want to carry that through,” he pointed out.
Eleven of the players from the Northern Ireland U21 squad which finished the 2019 campaign with a 1-0 win over Slovakia back in October will be eligible to play in the 2021 qualifiers – plus a few others who were in and around the squad.
Baraclough said this bodes well for the forthcoming campaign. “Hopefully we can continue the good work and keep moving forward,” he added.
Northern Ireland’s first Group 8 qualifier for the 2021 tournament - it will be staged in Hungary and Slovenia - is expected to be played next September.