Belfast Telegraph

Sports Awards

Euro 2016: Michael O'Neill - We can deal with Bale's brilliance

Michael backs his defence to handle Real hero

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill knew it was coming. He was prepared for the Gareth Bale question and believes his players will answer it too in the Parc des Princes tonight.

Welsh superstar Bale has been unstoppable in the Euro 2016 finals so far.

He has scored against Slovakia, England and Russia in the group stages of the tournament and now wants to be a knockout in the last 16.

Whether Northern Ireland can deal with the threat of the Real Madrid hero will go a long way to deciding who qualifies for a last eight clash in Lille on Friday against either Belgium or Hungary.

In his time as Northern Ireland manager O'Neill has had plenty of experience taking on the game's big hitters.

His team kept Poland's ace goalgetter Robert Lewandowski quiet in the opening match in France, faced the star-studded World Champion German side on Tuesday and previously met the challenge of Cristiano Ronaldo head on.

Bale's club colleague may have scored a hat-trick for Portugal in a 4-2 World Cup qualifying victory at Windsor Park, but O'Neill will take more heart from the night in Porto his players stopped Ronaldo in a 1-1 draw when the former Manchester United star won his 100th cap.

"Gareth Bale's a huge player for Wales. He's shown that in the tournament already and he's shown that in qualification," said O'Neill.

"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.

"When you get to this stage of the tournament you have to deal with special players. On Tuesday night we played a team full of world class players.

"We'll be ready to deal with Gareth Bale. We know his threat, his threat at set pieces.

"We know his running power, his pace and his goal threat but we know how to deal with those things.

"Our strength has been our defensive shape as a team, not as individuals. I think in previous games and qualification games they've dealt with top, top players.

"We need Gareth Bale to have a quiet night and it's up to us to make sure that's the case.

"Our players want to show what they can do against the best players in Europe and this is another chance to do that.

"The game will have a bit of a cup-tie feel and Wales go into that cup tie as favourites. We're happy with that position. It suits us."

In yesterday's press conference inside the stadium, O'Neill was sharp with his replies and humorous at times.

Asked about his record in derby games, he joked about when he was manager of Brechin meeting Montrose and the 'electric' atmosphere created by 500 spectators, batted away the by now daily question on the Will Grigg song by stating he was glad the Wigan forward was 'still on fire' and said that the result of the United Kingdom's EU referendum would not impact on his formation or team selection!

He did add though that he was disappointed not to have sent a postal vote.

Who he will choose for his starting XI is his most pressing concern.

Michael McGovern, fresh from his spectacular showing in the 1-0 defeat to Germany, will be in goal with Craig Cathcart, Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans in defence. Whether O'Neill sticks with Aaron Hughes at right-back is an interesting debate with Paddy McNair and Conor McLaughlin waiting in the wings.

The midfield will be captain Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood and possibly the more experienced Chris Baird ahead of Corry Evans with Stuart Dallas and Jamie Ward out wide.

The centre of the park will be a vital area with Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey out to dictate for the Welsh.

In attack for Northern Ireland Kyle Lafferty might just receive the call he craves ahead of Conor Washington.

O'Neill added: "It is important that we make it into a cup tie.

"We have an English referee and we want everything that is good about the British game in it.

"It will be interesting because Wales are a counter-attacking team, similar to ourselves.

"We will set our stall out to try and win the game."

Let's hope they do.

What a magical night it could be for Northern Ireland.

  • N Ireland v Wales, Euro 2016 Round of 16: Parc des Princes, Today, 5.00pm

Belfast Telegraph