Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Northern Ireland love being underdogs, says Davis

O'Neill's tactics will be key says skipper

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis is backing manager Michael O'Neill to come up with clever game plans to upset the odds at next year's European Championships.

O'Neill excelled during the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and Southampton star Davis believes the boss can shine again in France.

And this even though the opposition in the finals will be just about as tough as you can get.

Northern Ireland entered Saturday's group draw in Paris in Pot 4 - the lowest seeding - so they knew the opposition would be challenging, but perhaps not quite as difficult as World Champions Germany, Poland, led in attack by magnificent Bayern Munich forward Robert Lewandowski, and a Ukraine team itching to show they are a force to be reckoned with.

First up will be Poland, then Ukraine with Northern Ireland's final group game against mighty Germany in the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris.

Initially Davis wasn't exactly overjoyed with the outcome of the draw as he watched it on Southampton's team coach following their defeat at Crystal Palace on Saturday, but after processing it in his mind, he is feeling positive about taking on some of the best players on the planet.

"When Germany came out I couldn't believe it," admitted the 30-year-old.

"We knew we'd already be playing them in the World Cup qualifiers but to get them at the Euros was not something we wanted.

"Poland and Ukraine are no pushovers either so it is a tough group.

"Had Italy been drawn against us it really would have been a Group of Death but thankfully that didn't happen.

"We know it will be difficult, but also we have three matches coming up in the finals of a major tournament which we can all look forward to.

"It all seems so much more real now. From here on in the excitement grows and as tough as the draw is, I know we will go there with game plans in mind and we will enjoy it."

The game plans will come from the manager, whose selections and formations worked in qualifying when Northern Ireland topped their group and lost only one out of their 10 matches.

Davis acknowledges Germany, Poland and Ukraine are a step up from Romania, Hungary and Finland, but believes O'Neill has the coaching expertise to cope.

"There's no question it is another step up from the group we were in for qualifying but this is what we have been working for," said the ex-Rangers hero.

"Hopefully it will help playing Poland first, then Ukraine, because we want to make a good start and momentum is key in any tournament.

"Michael's attention to detail is something that has given us an edge in many games and I know it will be no different when it comes to the Euros.

"We will know all about the teams, their strengths and weaknesses and how we will be able to get at them.

"Then it will be up to us to do that.

"As things stand, I'd be pretty confident we already know all about Germany because they have world class players throughout their squad, as they showed by winning the World Cup in Brazil, even when many fancied Argentina in last year's final.

"We want to test ourselves against the best and Germany are certainly up there on that score.

"I'm sure they will have taken notice of what we did in qualifying too, so they know they aren't going to have it all their own way."

The target for Davis and his team-mates is to reach the knockout stages of the tournament.

They can do that by either finishing in the top two spots in Group C or by being one of the four best third-placed sides.

The draw may have been easier, but Davis remains confident that the original mission can be accomplished and is not impossible and suggests being big underdogs will help.

"We have belief in ourselves and each other so we believe we can get out of this group and we will be embracing the challenge," said Davis, who scored twice in a 3-1 victory over Greece at Windsor Park in October to seal Northern Ireland's place at the finals.

"People will see us as outsiders but we know getting through to the last 16 is a realistic target.

"Of course the odds will be stacked against us but we've never minded that. In fact, we usually relish that.

"We'll go there feeling we can compete."

Northern Ireland

Coach: Michael O'Neill

Star player: Kyle Lafferty

Chances: Northern Ireland are a well-coached and strong unit and while they will face Germany, Poland and Ukraine in Group C, progressing to the last-16 is certainly not beyond this team.

Tournament best: first time qualifiers

Qualifying record: W6 D3 L1

Qualifying stat: O'Neill's men proved the surprise package of their qualifying group, topping it having begun as 20/1 outsiders.

Belfast Telegraph