Where do NI go from here following the Bulgaria defeat?

Northern Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup abruptly ended following a 2-1 defeat against Bulgaria this week. Conor Washington opened the scoring in Sofia and gave the Green and White Army hope with his first-half goal. But a second-half collapse ended Northern Ireland’s slim qualification hopes.

It was a severely disappointing result for Ian Baraclough’s side, who are now winless in their last three qualifiers following a 0-0 draw and a 2-0 loss against Switzerland. Northern Ireland are playing for pride only in their final two qualifiers in November against Lithuania and Italy.

Following a poor qualifying campaign, the future of the national team and its progress will be a key topic in the coming months.

Northern Ireland falling short.

Northern Ireland have not qualified for the last three major tournaments after missing out on the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and the 2020 Euros. Their last major tournament was Euro 2016, where they reached the last 16 under the previous manager, Michael O’Neil.

With just one win from their six qualifying matches, reaching the 2022 World Cup finals was going to be a tough ask for Baraclough’s side. After an opening 2-0 defeat against Italy, Northern Ireland showed improvement with a three-match unbeaten run against Bulgaria, Lithuania and Switzerland before the latest fixtures gave the nation hope of a second-place finish.

However, performances in the losses to Bulgaria and Switzerland were toothless, and the side showed few signs of securing a vital three points that would have put them back in contention.

The second half against Bulgaria was the final nail in the coffin. Northern Ireland were on top in the first half, and Washington’s goal was much-deserved. However, Baraclough’s side dropped off in the second period, and some moments of poor defending proved costly.

Barraclough’s Future and key players.

Northern Ireland will need to improve to qualify for Euro 2024. But it is unclear if Barraclough will be at the helm in the next qualification campaign. He has not been offered a new contract, and his current deal is set to expire in 2022. The coach has won just four of his 17 matches in charge of the national team. Only two of these wins were competitive qualifiers, showing that a change in direction may be needed for future success.

On the pitch, improvements are needed in attack to give Northern Ireland hope moving forward after Baraclough’s side scored just five goals in six matches, including four in one game against Lithuania. 22-year-old Shayne Lavery is the brightest attacking prospect for Northern Ireland after scoring five goals in 11 matches for Blackpool this season. His omission due to injury was felt in the final two qualifiers, especially after Northern Ireland failed to see off Bulgaria from a commanding position.

Baraclough has further attacking options in Conor Washington, Josh Magennis, Kyle Lafferty and Liam Boyce. The coach prefers Washington and Magennis, the pair he started against Bulgaria. However, he may benefit from recalling the experienced Lafferty or Boyce to provide much-needed composure in front of goal.

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