Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland heroes can progress with a rub of the green

By Steven Beacom

So, now we know. The 24 nations for the 2016 European Championships in France have been confirmed and the name of Northern Ireland sits proudly on the list.

While the Republic of Ireland, Hungary, Ukraine and Sweden were the final four countries to secure their places via play-offs this week, Michael O'Neill and his players have known since last month where they would be spending next summer having finished top of their group.

As manager O'Neill pointed out in the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week his aim in France is to reach the knockout stages of the tournament.

Realising that ambition will depend much on the group draw for the finals on December 12 (5pm) at the Palais des Congres de la Porte Maillot in Paris.

This will be the first time in the competition's history that 24 teams have taken part, which means there will be six groups of four teams with 16 going through to the second phase. Whoever finishes in the top two in each group will progress with the four best third placed sides also advancing.

All this means just one third of the teams in France will go home after the opening stage.

Read more:

Dallas is just happy to do whatever it takes for team  

Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards 2015: Competition fierce for Team of the Year prize 

Despite their success in qualifying most pundits and opposition fans have already pinpointed Northern Ireland as likely candidates to leave France early.

O'Neill and his players won't mind that. They have been causing shockwaves around the continent for the last 15 months and will fancy creating a few more in Northern Ireland's first major tournament in 30 years.

O'Neill's men are in pot four for next month's draw alongside Turkey, Iceland, Albania, the Republic of Ireland and Wales, so can't face Martin O'Neill or Gareth Bale until the last 16 at the earliest.

The top seeded sides are hosts France, holders Spain, world champions Germany, Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, Belgium, Fifa's number one ranked team, and England.

The best draw from that lot would be Roy Hodgson's England. Nothing to fear from them.

In Pot Two will be Italy, Russia, Switzerland, Austria, Croatia and Ukraine.

Captain Steven Davis and his pals will hope to avoid the Azzurri from this section while the Pot Three nations and superstars to stay away from are Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Poland and Robert Lewandowski.

Northern Ireland have already shown they can compete with other Pot Three teams Romania and Hungary in qualifying while O'Neill has the tactical nous to trouble the Czech Republic or Slovakia.

No one will expect Northern Ireland to top their group in France, or finish second come to that, but being one of the four best third placed nations is an achievable target.

Four points from three games ought to do it. Having the luck of the draw in Paris would certainly help.

Belfast Telegraph