Home Nations Square Up in Paris: Previewing Wales vs. Northern Ireland
Ahead of Euro 2016, both Wales and Northern Ireland would probably have seen qualification for the knockout rounds as a good showing. Now, however, one of them is going to top that and reach the last eight.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
Ahead of Euro 2016, both Wales and Northern Ireland would probably have seen qualification for the knockout rounds as a good return on their time in France. Now, however, one of them is going to top that. A spot in the quarter-finals is 90 minutes away.
They got here in very different ways, of course. Wales won Group B – exceeding expectations in the process – and produced one of the best displays of the tournament against Russia. Northern Ireland snuck in as one of the top third-placed teams, though it was only goal difference that edged them ahead of Turkey and Albania.
But the outcome is the same for both: they'll face off at Parc des Princes with a place in the last eight at stake. Neither has previously been beyond the quarters of a major tournament.
Having won their group and dismantled Russia, Wales are the favourites. Their success in qualifying was built on an extremely solid defence, which allowed the odd moment of magic from Gareth Bale to secure victory (see their 1-0 win over Belgium 12 months ago).
In the opening two games of Euro 2016 that remained largely similar. Bale's free-kick gave them the lead against Slovakia, who equalised and then dominated early in the second half. A robust defence weathered the storm, and Hal Robson-Kanu won it late on.
The performance, if not the result, was similar against England. Another Bale free-kick gave Wales the lead, but this time the defence could not hold out, despite the best efforts of a rearguard that is led masterfully by skipper Ashley Williams.
The Russia game showed something else, however: Wales dominating. It was one of the most accomplished performances from a Welsh side, a ruthless deconstruction of a frankly awful Russia.
Wales strengths here were more than a solid defence and Gareth Bale up top. Joe Allen was magnificent, winning 50-50s and producing the kind of passes that made his "Welsh Pirlo" nickname seem less a pisstake and more a gushing compliment to the Italian.
Aaron Ramsey has been extremely industrious at Euro 2016 too, always harrying the opposition. He has also produced a few moments of magic that seemed to be missing from his Arsenal performances this term: the pass that made Robson-Kanu's winner against Slovakia, and his excellent first touch followed by a cool finish against the Russians both spring to mind.
Bale, of course, remains the key man. He scored the majority of Wales' goals in qualifying and has netted 50% thus far in France. He is a game-changing player, one who genuinely frightens the opposition and regularly has a significant impact on the result. What's more, he has winning engrained in him from three seasons at Real Madrid. His conviction that he's a winner can't be underestimated.
Wales usually defend strongly and counter very effectively; however, that won't be the case against Northern Ireland, who come into this game as clear underdogs. Michael O'Neill's men had their backs to the wall against Germany earlier this week, and will expect a similar – albeit less one-sided – match against the Welsh.
The star of the Germany game was goalkeeper Michael McGovern. The former Hamilton Academical shot-stopper produced the performance of a lifetime to keep Muller, Gomez et al out, with the 1-0 defeat proving crucial in his side progressing. Had he shipped a few more, Turkey would be playing on Saturday evening.
Worryingly, the goalkeeper accounted for more passes than the rest of his team combined against Germany and, with Wales looking comfortable in possession against Russia, his side could face another 90 minutes of shadow chasing and rope-a-dope football. McGovern will face a stern test, but he seems up for the challenge. If his side is to win, however, they'll need goals. Niall McGinn and Gareth McAuley scored in the 2-0 win over Ukraine, but ideally they'll need their strikers to start firing. Kyle Lafferty started up top in the opener, Conor Washington in games two and three, but neither has found the net so far. Proof that Will Grigg exists outside the confines of an extremely annoying song would also be a positive development.
Like Wales, Northern Ireland seem more like a club side than a collection of individuals. Sure, a lot of them play in the Championship, but the sense of working together for a greater goal is strong and there is vast experience in the team. They may not have a Bale, or even a Ramsey, but Jonny Evans, Aaron Hughes and skipper Steven Davis have considerable Premier League nous built up over many years.
If they are to win, they'll need to overcome a Welsh defence that has proved impressive thus far. Williams leads by example, with James Chester and Ben Davies both performing excellently alongside him. Neil Taylor and Chris Gunter play as wing-backs, mucking in at the heart of defence when required.
Given how difficult England found them to break down, Wales can feel confident about keeping out a Northern Irish side that lost two of its group games. With Bale, Ramsey and Allen bombing forward – as well as whichever striker Chris Coleman chooses to deploy – it's easy to imagine that the Welsh will pick apart the opposition's defence.
But this game is also characterised by a local rivalry and sense of occasion that makes it difficult to predict. Both teams will play with an extra 5% to ensure victory, and avoid being the first of the Home Nations to exit the tournament. They are on the favourable (but by no means easy) side of the draw and will want to capitalise on that, too.
Both teams have been impressive in France, albeit in different ways, but it's about to end for one of them. For the loser, Euro 2016 will be remembered as a decent showing; for the winner, it will go down as a tournament for the ages.
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