Belfast Telegraph

Wales v Northern Ireland: Prove we can mix with the elite

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has declared that the Euro 2016 finals offer him and his players the opportunity to show the world how good they really are.

Speaking ahead of the first international of what promises to be an unforgettable year for Northern Ireland, O'Neill was in determined mood insisting that there will be no resting on laurels and that his focus was on progressing the team further.

O'Neill's side take on Wales in Cardiff in a friendly tonight eager to improve on an eight-match unbeaten run as the countdown begins in earnest to the country's first major tournament since 1986.

O'Neill will go to France with a lucrative new four-year contract in his pocket, though he insists deal or no deal, he and his players plan on showcasing their talents in the summer.

"The contract gives me a level of security and calmness going into the tournament," said O'Neill, who despite his deal will be courted by clubs when the Euro finals are over.

"I don't think the IFA though were ever going to judge whether I was going to stay in the job based on what happened in the tournament.

"Getting to the finals is a massive achievement and having done that we want to give a good account of ourselves. Not only the players but me as a manager.

"The European Championship is a massive shop window for all our players. Probably 75% of my squad will come from outside of the Premier League. The finals gives those players a massive opportunity to show that they can play at the highest level.

"I'm no different as a coach. That applies whether you're in contract or out of contract.

"Signing the contract was the right thing for me and the players. I wanted to make sure my focus was 100% on the tournament. By signing the contract, it gives me that. I can approach the tournament and the focus won't be on my situation, but on how we can do as a team going forward."

Referring to veteran stars such as Roy Carroll, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and Gareth McAuley and their international futures post Euro 2016, O'Neill added: "I knew the challenges signing the contract that I faced going forward in the job.

"We have a number of players that I'm going to have to twist the arm of, to convince them that they should still be playing international football.

"That's something that we'll address at that time. The main thing is the belief that you can continue to progress, I felt that was the case. That's why I signed the contract."

Tonight, O'Neill admits a 'common sense' approach will be taken to the game with Wales, though he wants it to be 'competitive'.

Expect him to try out a few new plans with QPR striker Conor Washington certain to make his international debut at some stage.

O'Neill may also opt for a 3-5-2 system which would see McAuley, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart in defence ahead of goalkeeper Michael McGovern with Conor McLaughlin and Stuart Dallas pushing on in wing back roles.

Captain Steven Davis and Oliver Norwood will patrol the midfield with perhaps Paddy McNair for company. Jamie Ward will be involved in an attacking sense and there will be much needed game time for Kyle Lafferty.

O'Neill says he is concerned that the Norwich striker has hardly played any club football this season, but also stated that hasn't stopped the Fermanagh man delivering for Northern Ireland before.

"Whether it's 60 minutes or 90 minutes that we get out of him it is a step for him in terms of his preparations for the finals," said O'Neill about Lafferty's involvement in the Welsh game.

On the game itself and the strategies he may employ, O'Neill stated: "We have an option to look at how we play, both in terms of tactics and personnel and we have to manage the players a little bit with their club commitments, especially at this stage of the season.

"I think this is the most difficult international game in the calendar year because you come back not having seen the players for four months but we are looking forward to it and want to keep our form going."

Victory for Northern Ireland would be a wonderful start to 2016, but the most important factor tonight is players staying clear of injury.

West Brom's Chris Brunt, who was a welcome guest at training last night, is a reminder to all of the unfortunate nature of football.

He is out of the Euro finals due to a knee problem. O'Neill knows he can ill afford any more of his starting XI to miss the tournament of their lives.

Belfast Telegraph