Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough wants to see players force their way into his thinking for Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier against Switzerland when they face Estonia in a friendly on Sunday evening.
Baraclough plans to make “as many changes as possible” to the starting eleven that secured a hugely encouraging 4-1 win over Lithuania in Thursday’s qualifier as next week’s crunch clash at Windsor Park looms, but he insisted the friendly in between was an opportunity rather than a burden.
“The friendly comes at a good time for us,” Baraclough said. “We had a tough game in Lithuania and the travel that comes with it, but this gives us a six-day lead up to the Switzerland game. It doesn’t mean this game is any less important.
“It gives players the chance to win another cap but also to stake a claim to be involved against Switzerland.”
Niall McGinn wants to be at the front of the queue of those making their case and the Aberdeen winger will be handed the captain’s armband in Tallinn.
“I’ve always been the type of player who puts their hand up and says I’m ready to play,” the 34-year-old said.
“I’ve also been able to come up with big goals in big games, so my work ethic has always been to keep the head down and, when the opportunities arise, I take them.
“I’m looking forward to the game and I’m sure those who are going to play will be feeling the same. It’s all about impressing as much as we can and try and stake a claim for that shirt on Wednesday night.”
Paddy McNair, suspended for the Switzerland match against being booked in Vilnius, could keep his place but otherwise a new-look side is planned.
“I think it’s important that players who come on trips have a chance to play,” Baraclough said. “In October and November we’ll have two qualifiers and there won’t be any friendlies so some players may come away and not get any playing time.
“I think it’s important to test them and give them the chance to test themselves, and to have a good look at the players who haven’t played in the first game.”
The value of giving youngsters more experience was evident on Thursday night. In the absence of Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Stuart Dallas, Josh Magennis and George Saville, six of the eleven who started were under the age of 24, but none looked out of place.
“At some stage you’ve got to draw the line and say, ‘Tonight’s the night we come of age’,” Baraclough said.
“The other night, the team that went out was asked to play with energy, freedom and no fear and they showed all those traits.
“The character they showed to keep clear heads, manage the game and go on and win it pretty comprehensively shows a lot of character and good personality.
“The lads showed they are capable enough to deal with whatever’s thrown at them.”
After the Estonia match is over, Baraclough will have an eye on Basel, where Switzerland face Italy later on Sunday evening. A victory for the European champions would mean Northern Ireland would go into Wednesday’s match two points behind the Swiss and with a chance to go second in Group C.
“I said the other night that I feel this group has a few twists and turns in it and the important thing is for us to be in the shake up come the end of the campaign,” he said.
“We welcome any results that go our way and help us out, but the priority is to take care of our own house and make sure we get results so we can capitalise on any slip ups elsewhere in the group.”