Wales’ dragons take on fighting Irish in landmark round of 16 clash

Northern Ireland fansPhoto: Asif Burhan

Northern Ireland fans
Photo: Asif Burhan

Follow Scott Nicholls on Twitter: @scottnicholls

Started from the bottom, now they’re here.

Not only is this round of sixteen clash historic because it is the first time that these two nations have faced each other in a major tournament knockout round — it’s also now going to be billed by press in Britain as “Leave versus Remain” after a slight majority of British voters decided to leave the European Union via a referendum vote on June 23rd.

This knockout round clash also marks the first time either side has been to the knockout rounds of a tournament since the 1958 World Cup. Incidentally in that World Cup both nations made it through and England did not. Northern Ireland were trounced by eventual winners France 4-0, and Brazil squeaked past Wales 1-0 — Pele knocked them out that day. Fans of both countries will be hoping that there isn’t another 58 year gap until their next knockout round appearance.

Wales are mot definitely the favorite going into this game — their performance against Russia was dominant. It wasn’t just one of the best performances of the tournament, it was lauded by many as Wales’ finest every footballing performance. Gareth Bale scored — obviously — in that game, becoming Wales’ leading scorer all time at major tournaments. He also became the first player to score in all three group games since Ruud Van Nistelrooy achieved the same feat in 2004.

Wales’ record at major tournaments is actually staggering. They have lost only two of the eight games they have played in major international tournaments, and they’ve lost them by just a one goal margin. Once in 1958 (1-0) to Pele and Brazil, and once to England recently in the group stage when Daniel Sturridge’s late, late goal condemned them to a 2-1 loss.

Wales haven’t really been given the credit they deserve at this tournament — present company included. They have trailed their opponent for just two minutes and thirty one seconds up until now; they were the joint top scorers in the group stages with Hungary; and had 22 shots on target throughout the group stage — more than any other team

Gareth Bale has been the catalyst behind Wales’ success, of course, but you cannot count out the duet of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen. The midfield duo have been easily the best central midfield pairing in the tournament — Aaron Ramsey has scored or assisted 3 of Wales’ last 5 goals, while Joe Allen just keeps the Dragon heart beating in the centre of the park. He has bounced back tremendously from a few seasons under much scrutiny after a big money move to Liverpool which had been until this point a relative failure.

Northern Ireland has always been a bit unconventional, and their path to the knockout rounds has been par for the course as you’d expect. Michael O’Neill’s team are markedly lucky to be where they are now, but what matters at tournaments is you play the game and grind out the result. Nobody remembers the way you played to win — they just remember that you win, after all.

Northern Ireland have the worst possession percentage (28%) of all teams at Euro 2016; the worst in total shots (17); the worst in completed passes (412 — Spain, for examples sake, has completed 1800+); and pass completion in the final third (42%). It’s an unconventional way to approach playing at a major international tournament, whether they can help it or not is another conversation, but they are one game away from a Quarter Final match in a major tournament. If it’s not broke — don’t fix it.

Michael O’Neill will likely be reliant again on the brilliance of Michael McGovern to steer his side past Gareth Bale and Wales after his man of the match performance against Germany, which essentially sent the Northern Irish men through to the knockout rounds on goal difference.

It would be one of the upsets of the tournament if O’Neill’s men pulled it off, but it would be a belated victory for the “Leave” campaign… although it won’t change Britain’s decision to stay in Europe. Chris Coleman will be looking for the sort of performance that he got from his team against Russia in their last group stage game. If Wales wins comfortably, maybe Coleman will even let his team go out for their second beer of the tournament.

Team News

Both teams have fully fit squads to choose from today for this round of sixteen clash.

Wales yellow cards: Vokes, Davies.

Northern Ireland yellow cards: Cathcart, Dallas, Evans, Ward.


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