Nice (France) (AFP) – Northern Ireland have recorded a “massive achievement” just reaching the European Championship finals, coach Michael O’Neill said Saturday ahead of the team’s biggest game in 30 years against Poland.
Northern Ireland will make their Euro debut in Nice on Sunday against their Group C rivals powered by feared Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, before taking on Ukraine and Germany.
“It’s been a massive achievement,” O’Neill said at the 34,500-seater Stadium Nice.
And with the side playing in their first major finals since the 1986 World Cup, he said he is “not concerned” that the occasion will overawe the team.
“We embrace the whole situation not fear it,” O’Neill said. “I don’t think expectations will be a burden on us”.
Capped 35 times for Northern Ireland, the 46-year-old former financial analyst has proved a canny manager with a penchant for making history.
He took an Irish club side into Europe for the first time when Shamrock Rovers qualified for the Europa League in 2011-2012.
Then, under O’Neill, Northern Ireland became the first fifth-seeded nation to top a European Championship qualifying group, finishing ahead of Romania and Hungary to reach Euro 2016.
None of those opponents though had anyone in the calibre of Lewandowski, who O’Neill called “one of the top two centre-forwards in the world”.
“If you ask any club in the world would they take Lewandowski, everyone would,” he said. “He’s like Sweden’s Ibrahimovic, a huge player and a big personality, a talisman”.
– Impressed but undaunted –
The ‘Bialo-Czerwoni’ (White and Reds) scored 55 goals in qualifying –- 13 by Lewandowski– but as O’Neill pointed out, 15 of their goals were against Gibraltar.
“We’ll do the maths on that,” he laughed, a clue that O’Neill is impressed but undaunted by the Poles. “We have a lot of respect for Poland, hopefully they have the same for us”.
Northern Ireland begin the tournament on the longest unbeaten run of all 24 teams, a 12-game streak, a record for the side.
And although only a handful of O’Neill’s squad play in England’s Premier League, he has moulded a tough unyielding outfit that is dangerous from set-pieces.
The task of stopping Lewandowski, who scored 42 goals in 50 games for Bayern Munich last season, will fall on Johnny Evans and Gareth McAuley.
Both play for English Premier League side West Bromwich Albion and are a pairing that O’Neill is confident are up to the job.
“We have centre-backs in the Premier League who play every week against world class centre-forwards, the likes of (Olivier) Giroud, (Diego) Costa, so at the highest level of the game,” he said.
– Flawless preparation –
Northern Ireland’s own talisman, Norwich City striker Kyle Lafferty who scored seven goals in qualifying, was passed fit on Wednesday after an injury scare had raised doubts.
“We could not be in better shape in terms of injuries,” O’Neill said, praising the team’s smooth build-up for France.
“The preparation we have done has been flawless, I have never felt that a team that has been so well prepared in the four years that I’ve been in charge,” he said.
“A lot of Polish people live in Ireland so they have also helped us with our research,” he added with a laugh.
O’Neill also revealed he gave his men bibs with Polish player names on them during training for set-pieces.
“Players are visual in terms of how they take things in, how they learn,” he said.
“It’s useful in relation to set-pieces in terms of markers, anything we do in terms of preparation is never a gimmick, its got a purpose.”
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