Game of the Day: Wales vs. Northern Ireland, Paris, 18:00
With third places teams qualifying to the knock out stages of the European Championships for the first time in this tournament, a curveball knock out tie was always going to be on the cards but I don’t think anyone saw Wales vs. Northern Ireland coming…
Wales, compared to England, made light work of Group B. The defeat to England aside, where Wales always did look to be on the back foot, the performances against Slovakia and particularly against Russia demonstrated that Wales are more than capable of dipping their toes in the deep end of Euro 2016.
Gareth Bale is the obvious danger-man in this Welsh side, and England proved that if you stifle the midfield and cut the strings to Bale, Wales do struggle to break forward to pose a threat, something I am sure Michael O’Neill would have taken note of for his approach to this game.
To reduce Wales to the ‘Gareth Bale Team’ though is a harsh injustice. Against Russia, Wales demonstrated that they are more than Bale and share a belief and team spirit that echoes that seen in and around the Leicestershire area last season in the Premier League. Aaron Ramsey embodies the modern well-rounded footballer, able to tackle and start a break or be in the final third to finish a move off, the Arsenal man really has been impressive so far in France.
We also must mention Joe Allen. The ‘Welsh Xavi’, now the ‘Welsh Pirlo’ since his ability to grow a mighty fine beard has been made apparent to us all. Against Russia, Allen ran the middle of the park. Always regarded as a fantastic passer of the ball, in Joe Allen Chris Coleman has a player who can keep things ticking in the centre of the park but also has the vision to ping a perfectly weighted pass (you just had to see his assist for Ramsey’s goal against Russia). In a game of fine margins like today’s game in Paris, Allen’s passing ability will be crucial in breaking down a very organised Northern Ireland side.
It’s one of the romance stories in this month of footballing fun. As I dust off the old cliché, Northern Ireland are one of the teams to benefit from a change in format. Drawn in a group where any sensible Northern Ireland fan would have feared a bit of a pasting, they find themselves in the knock-outs after an all-important 2-0 victory over the Ukraine.
The image of Gareth McAuley wheeling away after an absolute peach of a header will certainly rank as one of the greatest moments in the 36 year olds career but it is in defence where McAuley has been playing some of his best football. After a tremendous season at West Brom, McAuley is part of a defence that only conceded a goal against both Poland and Germany. O’Neill’s preparation and organisation of this team defensively is a testament to the head coach and in Gareth McAuley, Michael O’Neill has a man playing the best football of his career.
If Wales have Gareth Bale, Northern Ireland have Michael McGovern. Currently a free agent, the 31 year old goalkeeper will certainly be on the shopping list of any Championship club in England. Out of contract for Hamilton Academical, McGovern has just been putting in performance after performance in France and with several good years still in him, McGovern as certainly used the Euro shop window wisely. A strong showing once more against Wales then who knows where this French adventure could take him.
Come Saturday afternoon in Paris, two of the home nations will descend on the capital in a tie that has all the feeling of a classic FA Cup game. Two unfancied teams, Wales will go in favourites to this fixture but with Northern Ireland being incredibly hard to break down, this certainly is going to prove more a test than the Russian game.
I expect Wales to edge this game by a single goal but it’s going to be tight. Don’t expect pretty football, it’s all about the passion with these two so expects tackles to fly and hearts to be well and truly worn on sleeves.
Rich, The Sweeper Football Blog