Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough believes Monday’s draw with European champions Italy shows his side can be a match for anybody.
But he has warned his players they cannot afford to let standards slip.
Northern Ireland may not be going to Qatar next year, but the team finished their World Cup qualifying campaign on a high by holding Italy to a goalless draw at Windsor Park - pushing Roberto Mancini’s side into the play-offs as Switzerland finished top of Group C.
It was the best performance of Baraclough’s tenure to date, but Northern Ireland had both ups and downs in the last 18 months – most obviously in dropping points both home and away against Bulgaria – and must show much greater consistency.
“On any given night I think we have shown we can compete with whatever opposition’s out there,” Baraclough said.
“That was as good as anything on Monday. They are European champions and we have managed to keep a clean sheet against them and create some chances.
“We are a nation who can’t let our standards slip and if we do that’s when we get hurt. That’s the reality of it. For us we have a group of boys who are conscientious in what they do and they love playing for their country and they love playing together.
“If they do lose a game it’s not for the want of trying. Sometimes you can have games that just don’t happen for you.
“I think from this campaign we have shown some enterprising play and that it’s a group of players that are growing together and a team that want to be effective in the final end of the pitch but know, if we need to put a backs-to-the-wall performance in, that we can go and do that as well.
“They are great ingredients to work with and hopefully we can build on that.”
Baraclough, who is expected to sign the new contract he has agreed in the coming days, can now turn attention to next year. Two friendlies in March will precede the Nations League, which will see four games in two weeks at the start of June.
Northern Ireland suffered relegation to League C of the competition last year but Baraclough sees it as an opportunity for his side to find a route to Euro 2024.
“It was a blow to us to drop out of the Nations League B division,” he said. “We knew we had to bring players through and play possibly weakened teams. You don’t find out about players unless you give them a chance.
“We have swelled the numbers, the squad’s bigger and it’s a lot more competitive in all areas.
“We have seen some of the teams we can draw next month and we are going to have to be on top of our game to top the group.
“That would give us a play-off berth for the Euros the following year and then perhaps gives you a bit of comfort to go and attack the group. We are looking to build towards that.”