Belfast Telegraph

Versatile Liam Boyce strikes right note for place in Euro finals

By Steven Beacom

Liam Boyce was playing Irish League football last year. Next year he is all set to be in France with the Northern Ireland squad for the European Championships.

It's a remarkable rise up the football ladder for the Ross County striker, whose ability to adapt to boss Michael O'Neill's tactics could see him on the plane to the 2016 finals.

Injuries and fitness permitting, O'Neill has already declared that he knows the vast majority of the 23 man squad he wants to take to Northern Ireland's first major tournament in years.

Given the limited number of players at his disposal, which illustrates O'Neill's achievement in guiding the country to France, most fans could correctly name 20 of those in the manager's plans.

They would be the three goalkeepers Michael McGovern, Roy Carroll and Alan Mannus, defenders Conor McLaughlin, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, Paddy McNair, Aaron Hughes, Chris Brunt and Shane Ferguson, midfielders/wingers Steven Davis, Chris Baird, Oliver Norwood, Corry Evans, Jamie Ward, Stuart Dallas and Niall McGinn and front men Kyle Lafferty and Josh Magennis.

The intriguing bit comes when considering those final few spots and at the moment it seems ex-Cliftonville forward Boyce is filling one.

O'Neill wants to use the friendlies in the build-up to Euro 2016 to nail down the final 23 and will expect players to perform not just in the games, when they are given opportunities, but also during the training sessions.

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Following Friday's 1-0 friendly victory over Latvia at Windsor Park, O'Neill said: "I think I'm clearer about the players who will be going. The big thing for me is to have options for both the systems we could end up playing."

Therein lies the crucial factor and where Boyce can score over other forwards.

Throughout the successful Euro qualifying campaign, in which Northern Ireland topped their group, O'Neill operated a 4-3-3 formation which could turn into 4-5-1 when his team didn't have possession.

He may still use it in France, but when Northern Ireland meet one of the big hitters in European football he is clearly thinking about going with 3-5-2, hence the reason for playing that way against Latvia.

In truth the opposition on Friday wasn't up to much but O'Neill will have been content at what he saw from his own players and will deploy the system again next year as preparations for the Euro 2016 finals intensify.

O'Neill said: "The 3-5-2 allows you to be strong defensively and with two strikers gives you an opportunity to counter attack better.

"We could play two systems in France, the one we operated in qualification which was 4-3-3 turning into a 4-5-1 or the 3-5-2 everyone saw on Friday night."

In the 20 certs for France only Lafferty and Magennis are recognised forwards. Against Latvia, Ward played in what is effectively known as the number 10 role doing a fine job. With more practice he will improve.

O'Neill, though, needs someone else who can play that position and as a lone striker if need be.

Enter Boyce, who is capable of both and it appears is currently ahead of Will Grigg and Billy McKay in the pecking order.

Boyce has shown with his goals for Ross County this season he can be a dangerous central striker and has the intelligence to operate with more freedom.

It was telling that Boyce came on against Latvia for the final 21 minutes replacing Ward. McKay and Grigg, his main competitors to make the squad, didn't feature at all.

Belfast Telegraph


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