Ageing Northern Ireland defence may bear Brunt of Group C big guns
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | April 15, 2016
Northern Ireland enter Euro 2016 buoyed by being at an all-time high of 26th in the FIFA World Rankings which they reached in the spring. That is just reward for a side that qualified for their first major tournament in 30 years.
Reality check round the corner?
Optimism can easily be dampened, however, as Michael O’Neill’s men face the daunting prospect of a France finals Group C that contains World Cup holders Germany, Poland and Ukraine – all of whom boast prolific and electric attackers.
Couple that with an ageing defence, and it’s no wonder Northern Ireland are 11/5 outsiders with Coral to advance to the knockout phase and alternatively firmly odds-on at 1/3 to be eliminated in the group stage.
Star strikers opposing the plucky Northern Irish are established names like Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski, and aiming to keep these prime talents out are players in their mid-30s.
Age before beauty
Veteran duo Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley get a last hurrah at 36, but injury to the versatile Chris Brunt, converted by West Bromwich Albion in recent years to a left back, will miss the Euros.
O’Neill had solved a problem position with Brunt dropping back into this berth, and understudies like Daniel Lafferty (benched behind Ben Mee at Burnley) and Shane Ferguson (Millwall) are playing at lower levels to the long-serving Baggies man.
Utility man Chris Baird, meanwhile, is 34, with Jonny Evans a relative youngster at 28 and the promising Paddy McNair representing real youth aged 20. That latter pair are Manchester United’s past and present.
Evans keeps the Albion connections going with the mid-table Premier League team set to bring a strong flavour to Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad at the back.
One-time Red Devils stopper Roy Carroll will be among the oldest keepers at the tournament at 38, and he will have to roll back the years to his Old Trafford days in order to thwart some of the flying forwards who oppose him.
All of this experience has served O’Neill well during qualifying, but that pool was relatively kind with Euro 2004 winners Greece imploding and fellow 2016 finalists Hungary and Romania reaching France in unheralded fashion.
Taking on the world champions and their neighbours Poland, who have the prolific pairing of Lewandowski and Ajax marksman Arkadiusz Milik, are far sterner tests than any Northern Ireland faced en route to the tournament.
Besides Muller for Die Mannschaft, there are other direct threats like Marco Reus and Andre Schurrle offering all sorts of problems from the flanks.
Engine room worries
Who in Northern Irish ranks, meanwhile, can keep playmaking pair Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos quiet? The midfield battle is also a huge mismatch with the likes of them, Sami Khedira and Ilkay Gundogan going up against Southampton’s Steven Davis and Championship calibre couple Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers) and Oliver Norwood (Reading).
Such stark contrasts represent a massive chasm in quality that must be bridged to be competitive. Poland will also expect highly-rated anchorman Grzegorz Krychowiak to boss midfield when they meet.
Even Ukraine, who on paper make for the next weakest Group C opposition, can count on crackerjack talents of Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko in front of a seasoned defence and wily veteran skipper Anatoliy Tymoshchuk. Both Ukrainian attackers have guile and goals in them, so will also give O’Neill a few headaches.
It is all too easy to get swept along by the sentiment of what Northern Ireland have achieved. They are at Euro 2016 on merit, but if they got a kind draw in qualifying then Lady Luck left them behind for the finals pool.
Giants can be killed
And yet neighbours the Republic of Ireland stifled Germany home and away, taking four points off the World Cup holders en route to also reaching the tournament.
That is evidence that underdogs can raise their game even against the mightiest opposition, but Joachim Low’s lads are a team that turn it on in tournaments, reaching the semis or better at each of the last five from the 2006 World Cup onwards.
Poland, meanwhile will not get a better chance to end their recent run of successive group stage exits from the Euros, and should do so because they have leading scorer in qualifying Lewandowski rampant and ready to pounce and poach.
With legendary striker Andriy Shevchenko part of their coaching set-up, meanwhile, Ukraine will also aim to pinch a spot as a best third-placed side and sneak into the last 16.
Northern Ireland would be wise, then, to just enjoy their presence on the big stage. That is not patronising, as the goals of Kyle Lafferty lifted them onto it, but because on paper they cannot match the creativity and strength in depth on show among their Group C rivals.