Thirty years they have waited and now Robert Lewandowski stands before them, yet Michael O’Neill has urged Northern Ireland to embrace their European Championship bow and insisted there is nothing to fear against Poland on Sunday.
The Northern Ireland manager was in confident form before his country’s first outing at a major tournament since 12 June 1986, when Pat Jennings’ 41st birthday involved a 3-0 defeat by Brazil in Guadalajara. That was Northern Ireland’s third appearance at a World Cup finals. They have never featured at a European Championship but that will change on the Côte d’Azur when the rewards of a winning their qualification group and going 12 games unbeaten – the longest run in the country’s history and the best of all the sides competing in France – will hit home.
At least 8,000 Northern Ireland supporters will be inside the Stade de Nice and O’Neill is adamant his players will be inspired, not overawed, by a momentous occasion in their lives.
“We need to embrace the whole situation, not fear it,” he said. “It has been a massive achievement for us to be part of this tournament. We all hope to do extremely well but I don’t think the expectation level will be a burden on us. The players believe they can do well. In terms of preparation that comes from the players themselves, from the likes of Steven Davis, who plays at this level week in, week out and has been at that level all of his career.
“When I look at qualification, this is a huge game, a massive game, but the biggest game we had to play was the Greece game and we played Paddy McNair, who had played less than 10 first-team games at that point and shone throughout the game. We played Josh Magennis from the SPL, we had suspensions and we dealt with that. The players proved they are able to handle the situation. There was more tension in that Greece game arguably than there will be tomorrow night because there was so much at stake, so I don’t have the concern the occasion will overawe us at all.”
That may be so but the threat posed by Lewandowski remains. No one scored more than the Bayern Munich striker’s 13 goals in the qualifying campaign and Poland struck 33 in finishing one point behind the world champions, Germany. “Fifteen of them were against Gibraltar. We can do the maths on that,” said O’Neill, a former financial analyst. The Northern Ireland manager believes Poland’s frontline, like the 30-year wait, should not cause trepidation for an experienced Premier League defence.
“Lewandowski, in my opinion, is in the top two centre-forwards in the world,” said O’Neill, who refused to name the other but made it clear he was talking about Luis Suárez. “Ask any club in the world would they take Lewandowski and I think that they would. There’s other threats. There is Milik, Grosicki, Blaszczykowski on the right, Krychowiak. Lewandowski is the talisman, the same as Ibrahimovic in the Swedish team with a big personality and being captain of the team. We have done a lot of work on the Polish team as a whole. We know their strengths and weaknesses.
“We have talked about Lewandowski and his significance in the Polish team but remember we have three centre-backs in the Premier league who play against world-class centre-forwards every week [Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans]. I don’t think any of our centre-backs will be overawed at playing against Lewandowski. They have played against big players in the past the likes of Ronaldo and other strikers of that calibre.”
Poland have had injury problems in the buildup to the Group C opener but O’Neill suggested they had been exaggerated. He said: “We know that Krychowiak only played the Lithuania game because of his knee situation but we expect him to play. Grosicki has had an ankle problem but we expect him to play. Pazdan has a knee problem but again we expect him to play. Despite the injury rumours we believe we will face the strongest Polish team possible.”
As for his own selection issues, O’Neill claimed to have few with the leading striker, Kyle Lafferty, having recovered from a groin problem suffered in training on Tuesday. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt the team has been as well-prepared in the four years that I’ve been in charge,” he said. “We have no doubts whatsoever about Kyle’s fitness. The players are very well prepared; I don’t think there’s a need for a final message. I think they understand the significance of the game.”
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