O'Neill expects best of British as North stars chase dream
Published 25/06/2016 | 02:30
Amid a political earthquake back home, the stage is set in Paris today for British football at least to underline its growing strength and influence from inside Europe.
History has already been created by both Wales and Northern Ireland in even reaching the last 16 of Euro 2016 and an unprecedented opportunity now awaits at the Parc des Princes for one of these teams to reach the quarter-finals.
Gareth Bale, the world's most expensive player, effectively spoke for both sides yesterday when he described the magnitude of the occasion.
"It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance," said Bale.
"We are trying to grab it with both hands. We are trying to ride that wave and do everything to give the fans something to cheer."
Those fans have been flocking in joyous celebration to France and, amid the Celtic takeover this evening of one corner of Paris, it is worth pausing to recall the contrast with five years ago.
Both teams were then languishing outside the top 80 in the Fifa rankings and played in front of an embarrassingly low crowd of just 528 inside the 51,000-capacity Aviva Stadium.
Parc des Princes is an almost identically-sized venue and organisers estimate that today's fixture could have been sold out several times over. French newspaper 'L'Equipe' even asked yesterday if it was "the game of the tournament of fans".
Chris Coleman felt that his Wales players had allowed a similarly charged occasion to hinder the performance against England and wants emotion to be removed from their game.
Michael O'Neill, however, has told his squad to positively feed off the occasion. "What will I tell them? Find the game of your life," said O'Neill.
"We don't want this to end. We want more. I want my team to play with loads of emotion; to fully understand the significance of the game. You can't play without emotion."
The biggest individual draw will naturally be Bale and, of the 46 players across the two squads, he is the only person based outside of the United Kingdom.
Even the referee, Martin Atkinson, is English. It all points to a certain type of match.
"We want to see everything that is good about the British game," said O'Neill. "We expect a good old-fashioned British game."
Northern Ireland have had less possession than any remaining team in the tournament and, with Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen in their side, O'Neill was happy to characterise Wales as favourites.
Coleman was told that the odds on Wales winning Euro 2016 are now identical to another Premier League title next season for Leicester City.
"If we ever dared to think the next game is a stepping stone we are on the plane home," he said. "We don't look past the next 45 minutes. It's all or nothing."
Past fixtures between these two countries have rarely lacked spice. Northern Ireland have not beaten Wales in eight matches since 1980 and their last two competitive fixtures in qualification for the 2006 World Cup contained three sendings-off.
Bale described Northern Ireland as "quite defensive" but he also made a point of acknowledging their team spirit. It is a shared quality and one that was particularly highlighted by Bale's dismissive attitude towards the prospect of winning the tournament's Golden Boot.
"I haven't looked at the list," he said. "I have been told that I am joint top goalscorer but it is not important. Individual things are not really what I am in the game for."
The team is also paramount in Northern Ireland's outlook.
Just two defeats in their past 15 matches underlines their resilience and, like Wales, the players have clearly drawn added strength from past adversity.
While Wales once dropped to 117th in the world rankings, Northern Ireland plummeted to 122nd in 2004 after going 1,298 minutes without scoring.
Both are now flirting with the top 20 and also reporting a significant grassroots boost.
"It has always been my dream to qualify for a major tournament," said Bale.
"We are thriving and everybody is waking up and seeing what Welsh football is about. We want to grow football in Wales; get kids playing and be role models."
It was put to Bale that he sounded like a future captain. "If it was to ever happen, amazing, but as long as I perform well for my team, that is the main thing," he said.
The immediate focus for Northern Ireland is how to stop Bale.
O'Neill does not intend any sort of man-marking strategy and has promised that his players "will be ready" to negate the Real Madrid forward.
Chris Baird and Paddy McNair are expected to return and will have important defensive roles.
Kyle Lafferty, who matched Bale's seven goals in qualifying, is also likely to start and, having joked that he "wouldn't mind [Bale's] bank account", claimed that Southampton playmaker Steven Davis was of comparable influence.
"He doesn't get noticed for the type of player he is," he said.
The historic Brexit vote was naturally also on the agenda as the teams arrived yesterday afternoon.
O'Neill said that it would be of little interest to his players but is "disappointed with myself" for failing to organise a postal vote.
Coleman was more succinct. "Talking about being in and out of Europe, we are still in it and that is all we care about," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)