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Steven Davis: 'Euro 2016 is the best time of my life in football'

By Steven Davis

In Paris tomorrow, I will play the biggest game of football I have ever been involved in. The rest of the Northern Ireland boys feel the same way.

There is no fear or apprehension in our camp, only excitement and joy that we are getting this chance.

To have made it into the knockout stages of Euro 2016 and to have come out of a group containing the World champions Germany, Poland and Ukraine is a great feeling.

And now we are relishing the prospect of facing Wales in the last 16.

I have to tell you, I'm loving every minute of it. This is the best experience in my football career and I don't want it to end.

I'm trying to enjoy and cherish all of it because it is such a special time.

It is hard to believe that as a group of players, we have now been together for five or six weeks. The time has flown by and we are determined to stay in France for a while yet.

On Wednesday night we were watching the Republic of Ireland game with Italy on the television at our hotel.

It was a match that was going to determine who we would play in the last 16.

The Republic played very well and deserved to win. Wes Hoolahan had a chance near the end and when he missed I'm sure lots of people thought that was that but you have to give them credit, they kept going and scored a vital goal from Robbie Brady.

That 1-0 victory for the Republic meant they, and not us, would play the hosts France in Lyon and we would meet Wales at the Parc des Princes.

There was a lot of excitement in our camp when we realised it was going to be Wales. I would say the boys were more excited than we were when we realised we had actually qualified for the knockout stages.

That came a few hours after our game with Germany on Tuesday.

Looking back now after we lost 1-0 to Germany, the mood in the dressing room was that we had done enough to qualify even if we weren't confident to come out and say it until other matches later that night meant we knew our position in the next round was guaranteed.

The Welsh game is just great for us and it is a game we really believe we can win.

Throughout this tournament, the Northern Ireland fans have been incredible and on Saturday there is going to be another amazing atmosphere with two sets of fans sure to make a lot of noise.

We played each other in a friendly in March in Cardiff but I don't think that match, which finished 1-1, will have any bearing on this one.

It is a game that both countries will feel they can win and therefore make progress in the competition. Ourselves and Wales have been on a similar path in the last couple of years and it is all set up for a cracking game. For us, we have nothing to fear.

After our game against Germany on Tuesday, I can't see us facing more difficult opposition in the tournament.

That is a positive, as is the fact we stayed in the match with the World champions until the very end with our goalkeeper Mickey (McGovern) so outstanding.

Following the German match I got Mario Gotze's shirt which was nice as he scored the winning goal in the World Cup final two years ago. It has the little badge on it saying they are World champions so it is a good memento to have.

What we want to take from Saturday's game is a win.

Chris Coleman will have them very well organised and in Gareth Bale they have one of the best players in the world. He can cause problems from different situations and we have to be wary of that.

He started out at my club Southampton before moving to Spurs and I think he has done remarkably well at Real Madrid given the pressure he is under there. Already he has shown in this tournament what a great player he is and how important he is to Wales.

We will definitely need to stop him. Of course it's not only him we have to stop but he plays a massive part for them and you see that in the number of goals and assists he has contributed over the last two years.

Our defence is strong though and will relish the challenge of taking on Bale and their other attacking players. One of our big strengths is defence and if you believe going into games that you are capable of keeping a clean sheet, there is always a chance to win the game.

There is a different level of pressure now in the knockout stages but I believe there is more pressure on Wales than there is on Northern Ireland. I'll say again, this is a great game for us and all the lads are genuinely excited about it. What is really important is that everyone believes that we can win.

To do that we have to reach high levels in terms of energy and quality.

Yes, we have to stifle the threat they carry, and while I wouldn't expect us to have more possession than them, we will look to stamp our authority on the game, create chances and cause problems going the other way. I'm confident we can do that.

With it being a knockout match for the first time in the Euro finals for us, penalties could come into play.

There has been a bit of practice just in case it goes to penalties. It is best to be prepared for these things.

Michael O'Neill (below) wouldn't have it any other way.

He really is an excellent manager. Everyone knows about the detail he goes into for games but he is also a good person which is a big factor as well.

He is very intelligent and has created a great atmosphere in the squad. He is very open minded to ideas from the players in trying to improve us in any way possible and any praise that has come his way for us getting out of our group is well deserved.

There's such a quick turnaround in games here that everyone has been scrambling about trying to get tickets organised for family and friends.

I'm lucky my wife Tracey is such a good organiser. She is on the ball where tickets are concerned.

I know Northern Ireland fans will try to get as many tickets as possible for Paris.

We have enjoyed watching videos from the fans and seeing how much it means to them and the reaction back home in Northern Ireland.

The whole country has gone football crazy. The players all take a lot of pride in that. There are special memories being created. We want to create some more.

Belfast Telegraph