Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough believes his team are in a much better place than recent results would suggest – and he is confident his players will show that against Kosovo.
Baraclough’s boys face the Kosovans at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park this afternoon in a UEFA Nations League encounter (5 o’clock start).
During a gruelling Nations League quadruple header in June they drew home and away with Cyprus and tasted defeat against Greece at home and Kosovo away.
When they came up against the Kosovans in Pristina in early summer they lost 3-2 in what was a tough encounter.
The Northern Ireland boss is expecting another intense and physical game today but is confident his side can come out on top this time.
He told media yesterday that the players look fit and fresh – and are determined to register a first victory in the Nations League after a run of 14 matches without a win in the competition.
In the matchday programme for the game against Kosovo he points out: “In June we had an understrength squad, with several players missing due to either fatigue or injury, while the teams we faced had their full squads.
“However, this time around we are much stronger. Our squad has a more familiar look to it and it’s great to have experienced operators such as Josh Magennis and Corry Evans back with us.”
He also says positive results against Kosovo today and table toppers Greece in Athens on Tuesday - it will be the final game of the latest Nations League campaign - would be a great way to get the team moving forward once again and to forget about what happened a few months ago.
And he further reveals: “There is a good buzz in the camp ahead of today’s game and the final Nations League group game against Greece and I sense the players are hungry to succeed. They all love playing for their country.”
The manager says there has been a lot of focus on attacking play during training this week.
“We want to be creating chances in games and be more clinical in taking those chances. I believe we have got the armoury in the squad to be able to go and do that,” he adds.
Greece are already UEFA Nations League Group C2 winners, having won all four of their matches to date.
Kosovo – who have six points currently – know they only need to secure a draw in one of their final two fixtures (against Northern Ireland today and Cyprus at home on Tuesday) to avoid involvement in the relegation play-outs.
Their group defeats came home and away against runaway leaders Greece, while they edged their first ever meeting with Northern Ireland and defeated Cyprus 2-0.
Kosovo have shown good form during 2022, with their UEFA Nations League campaign preceded with a 5-0 victory over Burkina Faso and a 1-1 draw with UEFA Euro 2020 quarter-finalists Switzerland in Zürich back in March.
Head coach Alain Giresse, the former France international, believes it will be a physical encounter today.
Kosovo’s team is built around a spine of key individuals - goalkeeper Arijanet Muric of Burnley, defender and national team captain Amir Rrahmani of Napoli and forward Vedat Muriqi, who plays his club football for Mallorca in Spain.
Rrahmani is a doubt for the game against Baraclough’s boys after sitting out training yesterday, however it’s in the attacking third that Kosovo can cause plenty of problems. Wingers Milot Rashica and Zymer Bytyqi are dangerous on the counter attack, while Muriqui has a real physical presence. The 6ft 4ins striker has the ability to dominate defenders in the air and is handy on the deck, too.