Belfast Telegraph

Expect more fireworks than in legendary 2004 Wales World Cup qualifier, says Aaron Hughes

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland great Aaron Hughes is expecting an emotional and explosive Euro 2016 encounter against Wales tomorrow evening.

The 36-year-old has suggested that the last 16 match in France may even surpass the legendary 2004 World Cup qualifier in the Millennium Stadium when three players were sent off in an unforgettable 2-2 draw.

Hughes, who has done a sterling job at right back in Northern Ireland's games against Ukraine and Germany in the group stages here in France, was on the pitch for that Cardiff clash 12 years ago as the Welsh fought back from 2-0 down after David Healy and Michael Hughes were red carded for the visitors and Robbie Savage was dismissed for the home side.

Asked if he felt the weekend Euro showdown would be as explosive as the Millennium madness, the Cookstown man said: "I imagine it will be. I don't expect anything different. I'm expecting it to be a really hard fought match. There'll be a lot of emotion and a big atmosphere, typical of what you'd get playing another home nation.

"And in the context of this match being at a major tournament, that might add a bit more to it."

He added: "I remember the atmosphere from that game in 2004. It was fantastic. One of the biggest memories was the national anthems. They were awesome."

Hughes believes having played in the Parc des Princes against Germany earlier this week can work to Northern Ireland's advantage.

"The thought of going back to Paris, where our fans created such a great atmosphere, is fantastic. I'm really looking forward to it," said Hughes, who has now won 102 caps.

"We'll know what to expect. We just have to recover from the Germany game, find the legs again and we're good to go. In games like this you realise the whole nation is with you and we'll be going out there giving our all."

While striker Kyle Lafferty claimed in yesterday's press conference that Northern Ireland 'could go the whole way' at Euro 2016, Hughes was a little more circumspect.

The defender said: "What we've done so far is we've prepared really hard for each game on what we need to do, the strengths of the teams we're up against, the possible weaknesses we can exploit and I think that's how we approach this one too.

"There's no point looking ahead, wondering about the next hurdle. The confidence in this squad is as high as it ever has been. That excitement brings that confidence. We'll put everything we have into this one and prepare properly."

Hughes could find himself up against Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale, who likes to drift all over the pitch, wreaking havoc wherever he can.

The former Tottenham star has scored three goals to date in Euro 2016 and will fancy his chances of adding to that total.

Hughes, released by Melbourne City earlier this year, has crossed paths with the Welshman before in the Premier League.

"When you come to a tournament like this you have to expect to face the best," said the ex-Newcastle United and Fulham star.

"With someone of his standards you know what to expect. You see him perform week in, week out at Real Madrid so you're not surprised when he turns up and has a great game. It's what you can do to try to guard against that threat."

Hughes admits that he has been impressed with how Bale has kicked on in his career.

"You look at everything in his game and it's all developed," said the only outfield Northern Ireland player to make 100 international appearances.

"Even his last couple of seasons at Spurs before he went to Real, he just got better and better. Not just his skill on the pitch, physically he developed as well. He's an athlete. To compete at that level, as well as being technically skilful, you have to be powerful and athletic too and you can see from his make-up why he's one of the best players in the world."

While the Northern Ireland players have not surprised themselves by making it into the last 16, they have shocked others and are not alone on that score with Iceland also creating waves in France.

"Some of the so-called smaller teams are really making an impact," said Hughes.

"I think it adds to the tournament, it really does. It maybe shows you how far football has come in the past eight to 10 years. Every team, whether it's a big football nation or a smaller one, their players are playing at a top level with their clubs and taking that into international football. I think it has been good for Euro 2016."

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

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