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Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill savouring biggest test yet against Germans

Beating World Champs would be NI's greatest triumph ever

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill refused to be drawn on whether beating World Cup holders Germany would be the greatest result in Northern Ireland's football history.

He may not say it, but I will. Yes, victory over the champions of the world in Paris tonight in the Euro 2016 finals would go down as the nation's finest hour and a half.

Nothing would top it, not the heroics of our 1958 World Cup side in Sweden or when Gerry Armstrong scored the winner against Spain in their own bullring in 1982. Even the famous and much celebrated David Healy-inspired 1-0 success against England at Windsor Park in 2005 would lag behind.

A win for O'Neill's men in the Parc des Princes stadium would be number one in the Northern Ireland hit parade.

And of course it would take the boys into the knockout stages of the tournament. A draw will probably do the same, or even a narrow defeat, but how O'Neill would savour a triumph in his biggest match as a manager just days after leading the team to a 2-0 victory over Ukraine - the country's first three points in the European Championship finals.

Tonight the Northern Ireland players will battle against some of the best players in the world.

O'Neill has the same challenge, taking on Joachim Low.

"I always think that the one thing you get, even as a small nation, is the opportunity to coach against some of the best in the world and I regard Joachim Low as one of the best in the world. He has won the World Cup, there are very few alive that can say that," said O'Neill.

"He has won the World Cup in South America which was massive for a European country. It has been one of most enjoyable things about international football to go against Claudio Ranieri, Fabio Capello and others.

"This is an opportunity for me and for the players to come up against the best in the world. That's what the tournament is about. We came here to test ourselves and I think we're ready to meet that test."

Right now O'Neill says his only focus is on Northern Ireland's game tomorrow and not other matches that may help his team qualify for the next stage.

He said: "The permutations aren't really that important at this moment. We've got to make sure we do everything possible to make sure we keep progression in our own hands."

In Euro qualifying the Republic of Ireland took four points from the Germans. O'Neill said he had spoken with namesake and Republic boss Martin O'Neill about those games. Martin's advice? "To get as many people behind the ball as possible!" said the younger O'Neill with a smile.

The questions were wide ranging in yesterday's press conference for O'Neill from the potential of facing hosts France in the last 16, which he would welcome, to what Brazil, beaten 7-1 by the Germans in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals, could learn from Northern Ireland. Playing to the final whistle was the reluctant reply.

The most important question related to what team O'Neill would select versus Germany, after making five changes from the Poland defeat to the Ukraine victory, including leaving out striker Kyle Lafferty.

Becoming Kings of Lyon last Thursday, O'Neill opted for a 4-3-3 formation. There's a strong belief in the German camp that he'll go 3-5-2 this time.

He won't be afraid to make more big calls, but if he goes for three at the back they will be Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans with Michael McGovern behind them. The wing-backs could be Paddy McNair and Stuart Dallas with Chris Baird, Oliver Norwood and Steven Davis in midfield. Up front Lafferty may return in attack alongside Conor Washington. Time will tell.

"A lot of people were flabbergasted by that radical change in the team but eight started against Greece when we qualified," said O'Neill.

"There's different circumstances around every game. Germany came in to prepare to play seven games, they have the luxury of doing that with the quality of their squad. We have to prepare on a game by game basis.

"We have five players who have started only one game, we're fresh, we don't feel we have to freshen the team up, it's more likely to be tactical."

O'Neill is one of the most talked about coaches at the Euros in France.

Four years ago he was also at the tournament but in a different guise, hiring a car in Poland and driving around to see Northern Ireland's upcoming World Cup opponents, Portugal and Russia. One game took him to see Portugal play the Germans in Lviv in Ukraine.

O'Neill takes up the hilarious story.

"Me and a friend hired a car in Poland. We flew from Belfast to Krakow - easyjet - and that was a great base for us," he recalled.

"But we signed an insurance waiver at the airport to say we wouldn't take the car out of Poland so when we got to the border in Ukraine we couldn't go across.

"We were a bit stuck. 'What did we do?' That border's not like Newry today, there were checkpoints and all that, loads. We'd a brainwave when we saw this bus with Germany fans. Lots of people were staying in Poland and going across to Ukraine.

"I think it was about 50-60km to Lviv and we approached this wee bus. My mate tried to explain what we were doing and who I was, so that we could get on. They didn't know who I was, I was only in the job about six months, so when we got on they started to google me and 'Northern Ireland manager' to see who I was.

"I didn't have accreditation or anything - I'd not gone through the IFA - we just wanted to go on our own steam. We'd our own tickets, I wanted to go to the tournament and sample it, see what it was about.

"I wanted to see Russia and Portugal and I saw them both twice. I saw some great games. In this tournament everywhere we go we've got police security. But that's nice, we belong in this tournament. I sampled that one, now we're in this one and we're part of it."

And O'Neill is intent on sticking around Euro 2016 for some time to come.

Belfast Telegraph