Northern Ireland coach Michael O’Neill has hailed the “fantastic achievement” of reaching the last 16 of Euro 2016 and said he hopes to face Wales next, after his side qualified despite losing 1-0 to Germany.
“It’s surreal,” said O’Neill after learning that Turkey had won 2-0 against the Czech Republic, thus ensuring Northern Ireland qualified as one of the best third-place finishers. “We were just on the coach so have been following on the BBC website. I’m not sure it’s really sunk in yet, but it’s a fantastic achievement,” he added. “We knew the group would be difficult. What we saw tonight was a team that refused to be beaten by a big margin and did everything possible to stay in the game.”
Goalkeeper Michael McGovern, now out of contract at Hamilton Academical, said he had delivered the best performance of his life after making a string of saves to restrict the world champions to a single goal. Northern Ireland, making their first appearance at a major international tournament since the 1986 World Cup, will now either face Wales at the Parc des Princes in Paris on Saturday or France in Lyon on Sunday.
“Over the three games we deserve to be in the last 16. What we went through tonight will prepare us for anything in the next round and our players will be ready for whoever,” said their coach.
Asked whether he would rather face Wales or France, O’Neill added: “If I was picking a team I thought we had a better chance against I would say Wales, but we’ll see who comes out after the final group games on Wednesday.”
Earlier, O’Neill had also said that he would also relish the chance to face the hosts. “To have the opportunity if its given to us to play France in Lyon will be an amazing opportunity. The game will not be too dissimilar to what we saw today.”
Wales now know that they will either play Northern Ireland, Turkey or Albania. “If we were going to lose that was the best defeat we could have had,” said O’ Neill. “You’re never going to play Germany the world champions and not have that kind of night. The game wasn’t different tactically from what we envisaged. We hung in there. Michael had a fantastic night in goal. He’s had a fantastic tournament.”
O’Neill said that his players would learn from their three group matches and take that experience into the last 16.
“I think the players will take an awful lot from it. We don’t have many players in our squad who have played any European football,” he said.
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