Ian Baraclough could not have asked any more from his Northern Ireland players as they held European champions Italy to a goalless draw on a memorable Monday night at Windsor Park.
Northern Ireland pushed Roberto Mancini’s side into the World Cup qualifying play-offs with the best performance of Baraclough’s tenure to date, and had a glorious late chance to win it through Conor Washington.
That was not to be, but Northern Ireland can be proud of a superb defensive display – likened to a “typical Italian masterclass” by Mancini’s assistant Gianluca Vialli – which means they end their qualifying campaign having not conceded a goal in Belfast.
“For the organisation, for putting a plan together and executing it, I thought it was spot on,” Baraclough said. “We talked about having to defend for long periods to keep ourselves in the game, certainly not trying to sit deep so we were constantly clearing it and chasing it.
“We had to be concentrated at all times and I think everyone to a man did that. We had the best chance of the game to go on and win which was something we spoke about – as the game wore on, they would take chances and there would be openings. Could we take it?”
Unfortunately, Washington could not. The Charlton striker, on as a substitute, beat Gianluigi Donnarumma to the ball as the Paris St Germain goalkeeper rushed out of his area.
But, having cut inside on to his weaker left foot seeking a better angle, Washington could not get the right connection and saw Leonardo Bonucci clear off the line.
“No-one’s going to have a go at Conor for that,” Baraclough said. “He wanted to start the game, though he was feeling a little bit leggy and had a sore groin.
“We took the decision for Gavin Whyte to start and for (Washington) to be an impact player. Some players would sulk, but not him and not these lads.”
With Switzerland beating Bulgaria 4-0 to top the group, Italy face a return to the play-offs, where they were beaten by Sweden four years ago to miss the 2018 World Cup. After their recent 37-game unbeaten run and European glory, a repeat of that would be a devastating blow.
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, secured third place in Group C.
Baraclough, expected to sign the new contract he has agreed in the coming days, has taken charge of 20 games in just 14 months – compared to nine in the same time-frame at the start of Michael O’Neill’s tenure.
Northern Ireland will play two friendlies in March before starting the Nations League campaign in June – they will discover their opponents in League C next month – but before then there is time for Baraclough to reflect.
“I think when I look back (at the qualifying campaign), the two Bulgaria games were the key for us,” he said. “Not finishing them off here (in a 0-0 draw) and letting the one-goal lead slip in Bulgaria (to lose 2-1).
“That’s five extra points there in games we dominated, so we could have been talking about a really special night here. For me, we have to learn from those situations.
“There can’t be too many teams who have not conceded a goal at home throughout the campaign and that’s something everybody can be proud of, not just Bailey (Peacock-Farrell) and the back five – it’s a team achievement and something hopefully we can carry on.”