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Conor McLaughlin: 'Erling Haaland alongside Robert Lewandowski as Europe's best'

The 20-year-old striker scored his first international hat-trick at the weekend against Romania.

Northern Ireland will be facing one of the best strikers in Europe on Wednesday night in Erling Haaland, according to full-back Conor McLaughlin.

The Borussia Dortmund forward may still only be 20, but McLaughlin believes he already ranks alongside the likes of Robert Lewandowski after exploding on to the scene in the past two years – and bagging his first international hat-trick at the weekend against Romania.

McLaughlin did not feature in Northern Ireland's 5-1 home defeat to Norway last month, when Haaland scored two and created two more, but saw enough from the sidelines.

Northern Ireland v Austria – UEFA Nations League – Group 1 – League B – Windsor Park
Conor McLaughlin, left, played the full 90 minutes against Austria on Sunday (Liam McBurney/PA)

"He's right up there," McLaughlin said when asked where Haaland ranks. "He's probably one of the fastest players I have seen live, his finishing as well.

"When I went back to my club after the last game, I said to a couple of the lads, him and Lewandowski, when we played against him for Poland, they are two of the best strikers I have seen."

Given the ease with which Norway were able to rip through Northern Ireland at Windsor Park a month ago, the scale of the task in Oslo on Wednesday night is obvious, and McLaughlin said it would be down to the whole team to defend.

"It's obviously going to be difficult," he said. "It has to be a team effort and if we have a good shape, it makes it hard for teams.

"When we played against Poland, Lewandowski didn't score in that game, and it is possible to shackle players like that if the team works hard and keeps in a good shape.

"But they are quality players and on their day, they are very hard to stop."

McLaughlin played the full 90 minutes of Northern Ireland's 1-0 defeat to Austria on Sunday night, a flat performance after the highs of the Euro 2020 qualifying play-off semi-final victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina in a penalty shoot-out on Thursday.

Defeat was a sixth in seven outings for Northern Ireland in the Nations League, with last month's 1-1 draw in Romania their only point to date in the brief history of the competition.

That has raised questions of whether the team approach the tournament differently, but McLaughlin insisted it was taken seriously.

"Nations League games for me personally, they feel like going out and playing a qualifier," he said.

"We as players want to correct what we've shown so far in the Nations League, so hopefully we will go out and put in a good performance on Wednesday in Oslo.

Northern Ireland suffered their sixth defeat in seven Nations League matches on Sunday
Northern Ireland suffered their sixth defeat in seven Nations League matches on Sunday (Liam McBurney/PA)

"We as players aren't happy with the form we've shown in the Nations League. The play-off with Bosnia was the main game, but we want to be doing better."

Sunday's game brought a start for Norwich goalkeeper Michael McGovern, his first for club or country in 12 months.

There was little he could have done about Michael Gregoritsch's first-half header as Northern Ireland struggled to slow an Austrian onslaught before the break, but it was generally an assured showing from the 36-year-old.

Michael Gregoritsch, left, scored the only goal of the match at Windsor Park
Michael Gregoritsch, left, scored the only goal of the match at Windsor Park (Liam McBurney/PA)

"It was really good to be out there and getting a game," McGovern said. "I am delighted.

"I'd love to play more for Northern Ireland but the competition is fierce.

"I haven't been playing for my club for a long time now and Trevor (Carson) is playing regularly for Motherwell and Bailey (Peacock-Farrell) has had the jersey for a couple of years, he's at a Premier League club and he is developing all the time.

Michael McGovern earned his 32nd cap on Sunday
Michael McGovern earned his 32nd cap on Sunday (Joe Giddens/PA)

"It is frustrating but I understand the situation and if called upon, I'll always be ready."

McGovern was among five changes made by Ian Baraclough for Sunday's match, with more expected in Oslo as Northern Ireland navigate three competitive matches in the space of a week.

"There are unique circumstances at the minute and we've never been involved in triple-headers before," McGovern said.

"The whole squad will have to be utilised. It's hard for the boys not getting game time but obviously the three games gives everyone a chance."

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