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Wednesday 21 Mar 2018
Baraclough’s side relishing test against Spain’s young stars

A raft of young stars from top European clubs against players who largely operate in England’s lower leagues and the Irish Premiership?

It should be a foregone conclusion when Spain’s Under-21s lock horns with Northern Ireland’s U21s in Portadown’s Shamrock Park tomorrow evening (7.45 kick-off, free admission) in a UEFA U21 Championship 2019 qualifier.

But football doesn’t always work like that and Northern Ireland U21s manager Ian Baraclough says his team are fired up to face players from the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.

He admits they will have to be at their very best to get anything from the game, but he added: “This group of players really are a tough bunch and never let their heads go down when up against it.

“Spain were narrowly beaten by Germany in the final of this competition last year and have players with significant La Liga experience with some of the leading Spanish clubs. It’s a test we will relish, however, as we fight to stay in contention at the top of Group 2.”

The star-studded Spanish side currently top the group with four wins out of four, while Northern Ireland are in second place following three wins, one draw and one defeat.

Northern Ireland’s goalkeeper could be a tad busy tomorrow evening - and Ian Baraclough has two fine keepers to choose from in Burnley’s Conor Mitchell and Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who has forced his way into Leeds United’s starting line-up in recent games.

Experienced U21 defenders Cameron Dummigan, Ryan Johnson and Luke Donnelly, the team captain, can also expect a torrid time from the lively Spaniards.

But Northern Ireland have their own shining lights. Striker Paul Smyth, who has been a regular in QPR’s first team squad since Christmas, will be out to show how much he has improved since his move to England last summer, while the likes of Gavin Whyte (Crusaders), Mark Sykes (Glenavon) and Coleraine pair Ciaron Harkin and Jamie McGonigle are keen to make an impact on the international stage.

Everton winger Shayne Lavery and Stevenage forward Ben Kennedy will also relish the prospect of testing themselves against a side the U21 boss admits are “quality opposition”.

The Spanish squad features three Real Madrid players - Jesus Vallejo, Dani Ceballos and Borja Mayoral - as well as Barcelona’s Aaron Martin, Toni Lato and Carlos Soler of Valencia and Girona pair Pablo Maffeo and Aleix Garcia, who are both currently on loan from Manchester City.

And two players who ply their trade a bit closer to home are included in head coach Albert Celades’s group: exciting Middlesbrough winger Adama Traore and polished Newcastle United midfielder Mikel Merino.

Other stars include the highly rated Unai Nunez (Athletic Bilbao) and Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad).

All the ingredients are undoubtedly in place for another giant-slaying by a Northern Ireland team…

Northern Ireland squad: Conor Mitchell (Burnley), Bailey Peacock-Farrell (Leeds United), Cameron Dummigan (Oldham Athletic), Conor McDermott (Derry City), Bobby Burns (Glenavon), Liam Donnelly (Hartlepool United), Ryan Johnson (Nuneaton Town – on loan from Stevenage), Ben Hall (Notts County – on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion), Chris Paul (QPR), Dale Gorman (Stevenage), Jordan Thompson (Livingston – on loan from Rangers), Kyle McClean (St Johnstone), Mark Sykes (Glenavon), Ciaron Harkin (Coleraine), Jamie McDonagh (Derry City), Gavin Whyte (Crusaders), Paul Smyth (QPR), Jamie McGonigle (Coleraine), Shayne Lavery (Everton), Ben Kennedy (Stevenage), David Parkhouse (Sheffield United), Rory Holden (Bristol City).

Spain squad: Unai Simón (Athletic Bilbao), Juan Soriano (Sevilla), Antonio Sivera (Alaves), Jesús Vallejo (Real Madrid), Jorge Meré (FC Koln), Unai Núñez (Athletic Bilbao), Pablo Maffeo (Girona – on loan from Manchester City), Aarón Martín (Barcelona), Adama Traoré (Middlesbrough), Mikel Merino (Newcastle United), Aleix Garcia (Girona – on loan from Manchester City), Fabian Ruiz (Real Betis), Carlos Soler (Valencia), Francisco Martín (Francis) (Real Betis), Antonio Latorre (Toni Lato) (Valencia), Íñigo Córdoba (Athletic Bilbao), Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad), Pablo Fornals (Villareal), Daniel (Dani) Ceballos (Real Madrid), Borja Mayoral (Real Madrid), Carlos Fernandez (Sevilla).