Open draw offers Wales, N. Ireland Euro chance

Aaron Ramsey
Aaron Ramsey

Paris - Two small British nations clash for the momentous prize of a Euro 2016 quarter-final berth on Saturday when Gareth Bale's Wales meet Northern Ireland in a post-Brexit clash in Paris.

Wales (population 3.1 million) and Northern Ireland (1.8 million) have never previously appeared at a European Championship finals, but they find themselves in the last 16 with the eyes of the continent upon them.

Having qualified above England as Group B winners following a brilliant 3-0 win over Russia, Wales enter the game as slight favourites and Bale admits that the team's new status is still sinking in.

"We've come through a massive journey," said the Real Madrid forward, who is the tournament's joint top scorer with three goals.

"We've been in some bad places. We were 112th in the world and now we're in the last 16 of the Euros. These are the days to enjoy."

While the teams qualified in very different ways - Wales striding into the knockout phase as group winners, Northern Ireland squeezing through as the fourth of the four best third-placed teams - both had reason to thank their lucky stars for the serendipity of the draw.

With no previous major competition winners among the eight teams in the top half of the tournament, the odds on a team emulating Greece's underdog triumph at Euro 2004 have shortened considerably.

The winners of Saturday's game will play either Belgium or Hungary in Lille on July 1 and there is unlikely to be much trepidation in either the Welsh or Northern Ireland camp about that prospect.

Wales took four points from Belgium in qualifying and Northern Ireland did likewise to Hungary.

Indeed, both Bale and Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty have expressed belief that their respective teams can go all the way.

BEST AND GIGGS

The supporters of both sides have captured French hearts - Welsh fans charming locals in Bordeaux, Lens and Toulouse; Northern Ireland fans creating the soundtrack to the tournament with their ubiquitous ode to striker Will Grigg.

But while Paris will be awash with beer and British song on Saturday - as well as talk about the implications of Britain's decision to leave the European Union - there is much separating the two squads.

Northern Ireland's terrace darlings are Wigan Athletic striker Grigg, who has not even played at the tournament yet, and goalkeeper Michael McGovern, who spent last season fighting relegation from the Scottish Premiership with Hamilton Academical.

Wales manager Chris Coleman, on the other hand, can call upon Premier League quality in the shape of players like Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams and Joe Allen, while in Bale he possesses a potential player of the tournament.

"On form, Gareth Bale is arguably the best player here," said Northern Ireland's 36-year-old defender Aaron Hughes.

"A player of Bale's calibre is important. But you cannot stop one player on a man-to-man basis. The whole shape of the team has to be right and it takes a big effort from everyone."

Both countries have produced football greats, but Northern Ireland's George Best and Wales's Ryan Giggs were condemned to the same fate of shining for Manchester United but never gracing a major international tournament.

Wales hold the upper hand in the rivalry, having won 15 games and lost seven since Northern Ireland began playing as an independent nation in 1953.

They have gone eight encounters without defeat since a 1-0 loss in Cardiff in May 1980, although Coleman's side required an 89th-minute penalty from Simon Church to rescue a 1-1 draw when the teams last met in March.

Both Coleman and his Northern Ireland counterpart Michael O'Neill have choices to make up front.

Hal Robson-Kanu, Wales' match winner against Slovakia, is vying for a starting place with Sam Vokes, while Conor Washington has been preferred to Lafferty, top scorer in qualifying, in Northern Ireland's last two games.

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