Belfast Telegraph

Pumped-up Kyle Lafferty can't wait to leave his mark on Euro 2016 stage

Big Kyle insists he feels sharper than he did in the qualifiers despite his knock in Slovakia

By Steven Beacom

Kyle Lafferty has told Northern Ireland fans he is fit and ready to explode into action in the Euro 2016 finals.

The Fermanagh ace may not have played much club football over the past 12 months, but going into the country's first major tournament for 30 years he insists that physically he feels better than he did during the successful qualifying campaign and that he is stronger than he has been for over a year.

It's a big statement that will bring some comfort and joy to the tens of thousands of supporters who over the next few days will start arriving in France for the football adventure of a lifetime. There were worries when Lafferty went down with a knock to his calf and had to be substituted during Saturday's 0-0 friendly draw in Slovakia but it turned out that was only a precautionary measure.

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A wise move from manager Michael O'Neill, who knows how crucial the Norwich City striker will be to Northern Ireland in their opening Group C clash with Poland on Sunday in Nice and matches against Ukraine and World champions Germany to come.

"I got a kick in my calf in the first-half and it tightened up a bit," revealed Lafferty, who finished the season on loan at Championship outfit Birmingham City.

"It was too sore to continue, but it was just a precaution that I came off.

"The Poland game is too important to take any chances.

"In terms of my fitness I haven't felt as good as this for a long time - probably a year.

"I'm probably chasing balls at the moment that Michael doesn't want me to chase.

"At the back of my mind, I've wanted to get as many minutes under my belt as I could heading into the tournament.

"I wanted to be 100 per cent fit going into the opening group game with Poland in Nice and I believe I've achieved that.

"I feel good and sharper than I did in the qualifiers."

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Against Slovakia, O'Neill, as he has been doing for most of the pre-Euro 2016 friendlies, opted for a 3-5-2 formation with Lafferty and Jamie Ward in attack.

Lafferty says the players are happy to play in that system or the 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape used during the qualifiers.

"We're ready to go whatever shape or formation the manager decides to go with," said the ex-Rangers star.

"When wee Wardy (Jamie Ward) is up front with me, if things aren't going our way, he can drop into a wide area and we can go to 4-5-1 again. We have options.

"I think Michael knows what he's doing and we'll be ready. Slovakia was a difficult game and we have to take the positives from that."

Lafferty feels that Saturday's scoreless draw in Trnava was the ideal test before Northern Ireland's clash in Nice, adding that Poland won't cause as much danger as Slovakia.

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"When we spoke about Slovakia and how they play, we suspected they might cause us more problems than Poland," said the Kesh man.

"We knew if we could get a result, it would leave us in good stead heading into our opening group game.

"Getting a positive result in Trnava gives us massive confidence going into the Poland game. We would have liked to have won the game, but to get a draw against a good Slovakian team was a good achievement.

"Slovakia having us on the back foot but not breaking us down will give us a lot of belief from a defensive point of view.

"I honestly don't think Poland will cause us as many problems. I think Slovakia have a very good team and to keep them scoreless and get a result is a big plus for us.

"The important thing is we got a very good workout and all came through the game unscathed.

"We picked up a few knocks, but we'll be fine for Sunday. We're all looking forward to the opening game of the campaign."

Lafferty, who netted seven goals during qualifying, is relishing Sunday's encounter with Poland but states that it won't be the end of the world - or tournament - if they lose.

"It's an important game for us and we're all looking forward to it," he said.

"I'm sure the adrenaline will kick in and take us through that game.

"It's the country's first appearance at a European Championship. There's great belief in the camp and we believe we can get a result against Poland and in the other two games we play.

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"If we don't get a result against Poland, we still have two games to pick up points.

"I think we're capable of frustrating teams and hitting them on the break.

"We have shown we can score goals, so we won't press the panic button if we don't pick up a result against Poland and get the tournament off on the right foot."

Many Northern Ireland fans believe Lafferty is best on his own in attack.

Competition for attacking places is certainly fierce if O'Neill sticks someone beside him.

Ward's busy style often sets the tone for Northern Ireland but Conor Washington's lively displays in recent internationals mean he has a chance to start with Lafferty as well.

Will Grigg and Josh Magennis are likely to be on the bench, but O'Neill has stated that he will have no hesitation in sending them on if he feels they can play an important role for the team.

Belfast Telegraph