What represents success for Northern Ireland at Euro 2016?
Lee Gormley | March 25, 2016
What lies ahead for NI in France?
Northern Ireland made history by storming to their first ever European Championship finals last year and, after discovering their Group C fate in France, Michael O’Neill’s men face a tough summer ahead.
O’Neill’s side were truly impressive throughout the qualifying period, successfully earning a spot in France by claiming pole position in Group F, ahead of second-placed Romania and Hungary, with a maiden finals appearance now beckoning.
Not many expected Northern Ireland to perform as gallantly as they did, though a favourable group did help their feat, but nothing can be taken away from the emphatic outings that have seen them achieve a slice of history.
In the coming months, tougher tests lie ahead, though, having been drawn against all of Germany, Poland and Ukraine, three challenging opponents which will provide greater obstacles than that which was met previously.
So, having already secured history by actually reaching Euro 2016, for a nation that is 11/5 with Coral to progress from Group C, what constitutes success in France?
North can learn from south past
The scenes of jubilation after qualifying epitomised what exactly it means for Northern Ireland, among other successful nations, to reach such a coveted event, with former teams featuring the likes of George Best, Harry Gregg, Norman Whiteside and Danny Blanchflower having failed to do what the current crop have.
Although, the present side can learn from their national counterparts Republic of Ireland in how not to treat qualifying success as the crowning glory, with the latter’s Euro 2012 campaign having ended in disaster after initial ecstasy.
Giovanni Trapattoni guided the Irish to their first European Championship for 24 years, but that’s where the high spirits ended, as they were haplessly dispatched in the group stages with three straight losses to Spain, Croatia and Italy.
Martin O’Neill has since instilled a more defiant approach in the current Republic outfit, while his namesake and boss of Northern Ireland will be sure to drill his players in a similar aggressive mould to avoid any such dismal displays on French turf.
Testing sumer event
Northern Ireland are odds-on 1/3 to face elimination in the group stage, having been set up against world champions Germany, a Robert Lewandowski-led Polish side and the Ukrainians, who battled through the play-offs to qualify.
An exit from the opening stage of the tournament would be an underwhelming blow to the travelling fans, and those expecting back home, even after such impressive outings which helped the team get there.
Germany will be looking to add further silverware to their World Cup coup last year, while Poland possess a lethal attack which they showcased against Republic of Ireland in qualifying, though points could be gained against Ukraine.
The order of play may benefit O’Neill’s side, though, as they kick-off their campaign against the Poles before facing Ukraine, with Joachim Low’s dominant Germans waiting for their final Group C fixture.
Repeat heroics from qualifying will undoubtedly be needed, and the Green and White Army are 5/2 to exit proceedings in the last 16.
Preparations looking good
Northern Ireland prepared for their European Championship bow in a testing friendly encounter with fellow home nation Wales recently, as both sides played out a 1-1, with a late Simon Church penalty denying the visitors their first fixture win since 1980.
Even so, O’Neill was happy with the team’s performance against stern opposition, despite the absence of both Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, hailing the outing as valuable experience.
“It would have been nice to win, but we were able to give 17 players some game time and experiment with a couple of different systems,” stated the boss.
“We have very limited opportunities to look at systems, but the players adapted to both well. We were very disciplined in a lot of our play.
“In the first half we played with three at the back and there were positives in that, but equally things we need to work on.
“Having gone ahead it was disappointing not to win and to lose the goal in the nature that we did. I thought we looked comfortable. It’s just the nature of the goal – I haven’t seen the penalty back to see how significant the challenge was.”
Squad promising for O’Neill despite injuries
O’Neill initially expressed concerns that his key frontman Kyle Lafferty, who struck seven goals to help secure qualification, was worrying lacking game-time at Norwich City, but a last-ditch loan move to Birmingham City will only benefit him ahead of the summer.
“There’s always a concern when you have such an important player in your team not playing,” he continued.
“If you look back at the qualification games, he came into the games in September without any football and scored in both the Faroes and Hungary game.
“We saw a little bit of a lack of match sharpness in the following games. We just have to see how it is.”
Formation tweaks necessary
The towering forward is a huge 150/1 outsider to scoop the Golden Boot this summer, though he has the likes of Thomas Muller and Cristiano Ronaldo to contest for that honour, but his contributions will be vital nevertheless.
With Chris Brunt having been unfortunately ruled out of the tournament, O’Neill tinkered with his formation and opted for three at the back against Wales, a set-up which was promising and featured goalscorer Craig Cathcart, Gareth McAuley and Johnny Evans. Meanwhile Manchester United starlet Paddy McNair played a key holding midfield role.
After qualifying, morale is seemingly soaring ahead of a big summer at Euro 2016 for Northern Ireland, but O’Neill’s men cannot take their foot off the throttle in France, with disappointing consequences set to overshadow previous qualifying hysteria if they do.