Michael O’Neill wants to see his Northern Ireland team play from the heart against Wales in Paris on Saturday night, in direct contrast to his opposite number Chris Coleman, who has appealed to his players to use their heads and not get carried away with the local rivalry.
Coleman believes Wales did not show their best football against England because they “got caught up in the derby atmosphere”, and won so impressively against Russia through emotion being removed from the equation. “Get too emotional and the gameplan goes out of the window,” the Wales manager said.
The manager of Northern Ireland begs to differ. “I want my players to play with loads of emotion,” O’Neill said. “I want them to show that they understand the significance of the game. I won’t be asking them to take emotion out of it because I don’t expect anyone to play without emotion.”
O’Neill was backed up by his captain Steven Davis, who dismissed any suggestion that the rivalry between Wales and Northern Ireland was any less than that between the latter and England. “I think both sets of players will be extremely pumped up for the game,” the Southampton midfielder said. “Lots of the players know each other through the Premier League and there will be an edge to the game because of what’s riding on it. Whatever happens, we are loving the journey we’re on, and we know we are not going to face a tougher game than the one against Germany.”
Both teams have exceeded expectations so far, Wales by winning their group and Northern Ireland by beating Ukraine and then holding Germany to a low enough score to make the last 16. O’Neill made the point after that game that none of his squad has played in Europe, whereas the Germans were world champions and full of Champions League regulars. Without underestimating Wales, who boast several Champions League regulars and the world’s most expensive player in Gareth Bale, he imagines the gulf will not be quite as wide this time.
“I don’t have any problem with Wales being installed as favourites after winning their group, but that position suits us,” he said. “I expect the game will have a bit of a cup-tie feel to it. Wales are picking mostly from the Premier League, whereas we are a mix of Premier League and Championship players, but all the Championship players in my squad believe they are good enough to play in the Premier League. Whether it’s a Premier League team or a Championship team, the main thing is to make it a cup tie as well.
“It will have an English referee [Martin Atkinson] and we want to see everything in the match that’s good about the British game. I saw a table from Uefa today regarding simulation and we are bottom, so I think that is a good thing. We want to play the match in the right way, within the rules. We are expecting a good old-fashioned British game.”
O’Neill has been mildly irritated throughout the tournament by “the daily Will Grigg question”, politely but firmly moving the discussion on from a player who is much sung about but has yet to set foot on the pitch. Coleman knows how that feels, he does not mind fielding obvious questions about Bale but understandably bristles if they are to the exclusion of the rest of his squad. O’Neill dealt affably enough with the Grigg question – “it’s day 14 of the tournament and he’s still on fire” – though may have revealed more than he intended when the inevitable Brexit question came up. “It hasn’t come into my formation in any way,” he joked when asked if the referendum result had affected concentration in the camp. Then he expressed personal disappointment at not talking up the opportunity to register for a postal vote. “I personally made an error,” he admitted. That not only suggests he is unhappy with the outcome, it is perhaps an indication that he thought Northern Ireland might not have been away from home this long.
He was more relaxed when it was his turn to answer the Bale question. “He’s a huge player for Wales, he’s shown that in the tournament already,” O’Neill said. “But when you get to this stage of a tournament you know you are going to have to deal with special players. On Tuesday night we faced a team full of world-class players. I’ve had to deal with Cristiano Ronaldo so I know how to do that. We had it with Robert Lewandowski in the group stage as well. We’ll be ready to deal with Gareth Bale. We know his running power, his pace and his goal threat but we believe we can deal with those things.
“Our strength in this tournament has been our defensive shape as a team, and that’s what we can draw upon. That and the fact that we played in this stadium against the world champions a few nights ago. After that we felt we would probably be facing France in Lyon, once we got this game the players’ fatigue quickly faded. This tournament has been a magnificent experience for us all, we have wrung every drop out if it so far and we still want more, so the message to the players before Wales is simple. Go out and find the game of your life. We don’t want this to end, we want to be in Lille in the next round.”
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