Ian Baraclough has told his Northern Ireland side to build on their second-half performance in defeat to Italy when they continue their World Cup qualifying push against Bulgaria in Belfast on Wednesday.
Though the Group C campaign began with a 2-0 loss in Parma there were plenty of positives from a Northern Ireland side who were the better team for long stretches after the break, but failed to capitalise on a string of chances and ultimately paid for two first-half lapses.
They may have left Italy empty-handed but Baraclough saw enough to offer hope that Northern Ireland can make a serious push for a first World Cup place since 1986.
“These are not the sorts of games we’re going to get judged on,” Baraclough said. “We need to take that intensity from the second half into our next qualifier on Wednesday against Bulgaria.
“These are the games, against the Bulgarians, against Switzerland, and even against Italy at home. We’ll be buoyed by that second-half performance.
“We know we need to start games better, but we can create chances. We’ve got a team ethic where I think we need to be on the front foot. We can’t be passive, and when we are we get affected by it.”
Baraclough said Northern Ireland were guilty of that passivity in a first half which saw Domenico Berardi and Ciro Immobile put Italy in control.
Baraclough’s side had responded well to Berardi’s 14th-minute opener, but gifted Italy the second as Jonny Evans led a charge upfield which ultimately left gaps behind for Italy to exploit on the counter.
“I’ve literally just looked at it once before I came up here,” Baraclough said. “It’s not a pretty goal to concede and we’ll be disappointed when we look back at it.
“The keeper has just rolled it out to the guy on the edge of the box, he’s played a straight ball and then with the third pass the guy’s in on goal and he’s finished it well at the near post.
“Certainly three straight passes and you’re in on goal, that can’t happen when we’re in the ascendency and attacking.”
But where Italy might have been expected to dominate with a comfortable lead, Northern Ireland managed to put Roberto Mancini’s men under pressure in the second half as Gavin Whyte, Michael Smith and Paddy McNair all had clear sights of goal.
“The second half was totally different,” Baraclough said. “We pressed them and caused mistakes and created chances. I think we had a bit more belief in ourselves.
“The players are disappointed that we didn’t take it until the last 10-15 minutes of the game where it could have been tricky for them. Maybe it’s a chance gone.”
For Italy, victory extended their unbeaten run to 23 games and made a positive start to a qualifying campaign in which they must put right their failure to reach the 2018 finals in Russia.
Mancini admitted his side were a long way from their best, but insisted only the result concerned him after the long break since the last international window.
“After five months even the strongest teams have some difficulties,” he said. “You cannot take it for granted. You can’t stop and then just resume after five months. I think they have been excellent.
“Maybe we should have scored more and I think they were a little bit too relaxed in the second half…but after five months that was an excellent result.”