‘We’ll decide in Italy whether we take risk with Jamal Lewis’, says NI boss

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Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough will make a late decision on whether to risk Jamal Lewis in Thursday’s opening World Cup qualifier against Italy.

The Newcastle left-back, one of only three players in the squad to be a Premier League regular, has missed training this week with a groin problem and is now a major doubt to play in Parma.

“We’ll decide in Italy whether we take the risk with Jamal,” Baraclough said shortly before the team flew to Italy.

“He hasn’t trained, so it’s something he’s had back at his club and we knew that coming into this camp.”

Should Lewis miss out, Shane Ferguson or Stuart Dallas would be candidates to fill in, though Baraclough may go with three at the back against the Italians.

Ian Baraclough File Photo
Ian Baraclough may go with three at the back against the Italians (Fredrikh Hagen/PA)

After the match against Italy, Northern Ireland face the United States in a friendly at Windsor Park on Sunday before Bulgaria visit for another qualifier next Wednesday.

Northern Ireland have travelled to Parma without striker Liam Boyce, who is due to join up with the camp later after the birth of his second child, and also Derry City goalkeeper Nathan Gartside, who has remained in Belfast for medical reasons.

With Boyce absent and Conor Washington out injured, uncapped Accrington striker Dion Charles could get an early taste of action after his first senior call-up, and Baraclough said he was pleased with how the 25-year-old had settled in this week.

“This one is for him to see how the group works, have a look, see where he fits into the group dynamic and hopefully get some game time throughout these next three games,” he said.

“He only played three times for the under-21s so he hasn’t had a great amount of international experience at any level, so it’s a great learning curve from him.”

Northern Ireland v Slovakia – UEFA Euro 2020 – Play-offs – Final – Windsor Park
Memories of November’s Euro 2020 play-off final defeat to Slovakia remain fresh for Northern Ireland (Liam McBurney/PA)

Memories of November’s Euro 2020 qualifying play-off final defeat to Slovakia remain relatively fresh for Northern Ireland, but Thursday’s match represents a clean slate as Baraclough begins his first full qualifying campaign in charge.

Though there could be no tougher opening fixture in Group C than travelling to face Roberto Mancini’s side, Baraclough said there was an optimism within the camp that they can set a platform for the rest of the campaign.

“The conversations I’ve had with the players have been very positive and they’re looking forward to getting together again and back on a campaign which is the shortest one in history to qualify for a World Cup,” he said.

“We know we’ll have to be at our best to get a result, but there’s a determination there to get off to a good positive start and see what we can bring back before the Bulgaria game.”

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