Northern Ireland head to Pristina to take on Kosovo on Thursday night needing to change their narrative around their flailing Nations League campaign.
Sunday’s poor goalless draw in Cyprus means Ian Baraclough’s men have taken only one point from their opening two games in a group they entered as top seeds.
Here we look at the key talking points ahead of the match.
Northern Ireland fans have always backed their team through thick and thin, but sections of the crowd greeted the final whistle with boos in both the 1-0 home defeat to Greece and the 0-0 draw in Cyprus. Baraclough came into these four fixtures talking of targeting 12 points, but now he is in dire need of a win just to stem the growing frustration. If Northern Ireland return to Windsor Park for Sunday’s match against Cyprus still without three points on the board, the tension could be huge.
Is there progress?
Baraclough faced questions in Larnaca on whether he has taken Northern Ireland forward. With only three wins in 18 competitive matches, it is a fair question. The 51-year-old has given 13 players their senior debuts in his two years in charge and can claim to have significantly widened the pool of talent available to Northern Ireland. But equally, during this trip, he has frequently referred to the significant number of players absent for one reason or another – suggesting he believes Northern Ireland are still reliant on their core group.
Baraclough has emphasised the need to retain a positive outlook, saying negativity will only breed more negativity. He has reiterated his message to players that it is OK to make mistakes as long as they immediately pick themselves back up. Of course, there could be no more positive message in Pristina than three points.
The draw in Larnaca means Northern Ireland are now 12 games without a win in the history of the Nations League, a record which is a constant source of conversation – prior to the match in Cyprus goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell told the IFA’s own social media channels it was “somewhat embarrassing”. Having suffered relegation to League C, Northern Ireland came into the group believing they could target top spot and a European qualifying play-off place, but those hopes are already hanging by a thread.
Baraclough made four changes in Cyprus and there will surely be more to come in Pristina. The question most fans are asking is, who will start up front – many of them have been wanting to see Kyle Lafferty partnered with Shayne Lavery since the start of the group, but bar the last 10 minutes in Larnaca, they have not been on the pitch at the same time. Given Lafferty played the full 90 minutes in Cyprus, it is unlikely he starts against Kosovo.