Northern Ireland will be looking to continue their fairytale story when they take on the Welsh.
Michael O’Neill’s fairytale story makes Wales look like pre-tournament favourites in comparison. Despite only falling by one goal to Poland in the first game, they were badly played off the park in what looked to be the greatest display of sheer footballing superiority in the first round of fixtures (see Spain vs Czech Republic).But his side regrouped and registered a much deserved 2-0 victory over a beleaguered Ukraine outfit.
Wales have sauntered into the round of 16 in some style, with only defeat to Roy Hodgson’s England tarnishing what was a thoroughly professional group performance.
Wales v Northern Ireland | Saturday 25 June | Parc Des Princes | 18:00
To Win (90 Mins)
Wales 1/1 | Draw 2/1 | Northern Ireland 7/2
Wales 4/10 | Northern Ireland 17/10
I think that what Chris Coleman’s side brings to the table is a freshness that has surprised a few sides. They - alongside Italy - are one of only two sides that utilise a back three approach. But whereas Italy seem to do it in an attempt to systematically blunt the opposition, Wales seem to utilise the extra width to a far greater attacking dimension.
Clearly, the presence of Gareth Bale is going to give any side some potency going forward. But spare a thought for the oft-overlooked but equally important role played by Aaron Ramsey. The Arsenal superstar has given three lung-busting performances thus far, combining deft ball control with a tenacity that allows Bale more room to operate in.
The performances of Joe Allen in the heart of midfield have been immense, allowing Gunter and Taylor the freedom to push on in possession. Ledley’s unbelievable return from a fractured leg has really typified the spirit of this Welsh side.
I think Wales will relish this encounter. Northern Ireland are nothing if not stubborn and will be militaristically drilled. But they just don’t possess the pace or threat to really hurt this potentially vulnerable back-three.
Northern Ireland are not just coming to make up the numbers. They know that, on a man to man basis, they are behind Wales. But they have yet to concede more than one goal in a game in their last 16 consecutive matches. That unbelievable tenacity means that they will be difficult to break down in this knockout format.
Washington and Jamie Ward impressed against Germany and should keep their places ahead of Lafferty - who has largely been caught adrift in this upper level. Davies will marshal the midfield while stalwarts such as Jonny Evans and Gareth McCauley will look to repel any Welsh attack.
The problem with Northern Ireland is just how much are they able to throw at Wales. Ukraine looked a defeated team when the two met and Northern Ireland benefited from a lack of quality that night.
Wales are ebullient and full of in-form players. They can opt between the likes of Voakes and Robson-Kanu, troubles that O’Neill’s side wish they had. But knowing this phlegmatic side, I almost expect them to thrive on this discrepancy in quality and inculcate an ‘us vs the world’ attitude.
Expect a pattern of Welsh possession with Northern Ireland failing to benefit from counterattacks due to their relative lack of pace and incision.
Verdict: Total number of goals under 2.5 at 7/20I think that Northern Ireland may just be able to hold Wales- utterly in control- through to extra-time. Then I can see a piece of Bale inspired magic winning it for them in the waning moments.