Northern Ireland play the first game in their history at a European Championship, with Poland providing the opposition in Nice (5pm Sunday on BBC1).
Michael O’Neill’s charges surprised the whole of Europe by winning their qualification group, with Greece, Hungary, Romania, the Faroe Islands and Finland all finishing below Northern Ireland in Group F.
Their game plan was largely based on organisation, discipline, keeping things tight at the back and springing forward at speed on the counter-attack, with the collective amounting to far more than the sum of its individual parts. There is a great unity and togetherness in this side, and being underdogs in Group C could suit their overall approach.
The principal concern for Northern Ireland, though, is whether they have enough quality in the ranks to upset the odds in a very difficult group. Kyle Lafferty (pictured) is the team’s primary goal threat but has found the back of the net on only five occasions in his last two seasons for various clubs, while fellow forwards Conor Washington, Jamie Ward and Will Grigg all ply their trade in the Football League. Set-pieces could be key for Northern Ireland, who may struggle to create many clear-cut scoring chances from open play.
Euro 2012 co-hosts Poland made it through to this year’s edition of the continental competition by finishing as runners-up behind Germany in qualification Group D. Manager Adam Nawalka has moved the nation away from a counter-attacking game and towards a more possession-based approach, a switch that certainly seemed to pay off when the Poles hit more goals in qualifying – 33 in 10 matches – than any other team in Europe.
There are concerns at the other end of the field, though, with 10 goals conceded in those 10 outings – more than any other qualified side with the exception of the Czech Republic. Neutrals will be hoping that Poland recognise their strengths and weaknesses and adopt an attacking game plan in France, with Nawalka probably unable to rely on his team keeping too many clean sheets throughout the tournament.
Lafferty and Craig Cathcart have been nursing injuries in the past week or so, but both are expected to be available for selection for Northern Ireland. O’Neill used a number of different formations in qualifying and in the warm-up friendlies – including 4-3-3 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-2-1 – but looks set to go with a 5-3-2 against Poland on Sunday. Jonny Evans will be a key man at centre-back alongside Gareth McAuley and Cathcart (if passed fit), with Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood and Chris Baird the favourites to start in midfield. Lafferty could be joined up top by Ward, although Queens Park Rangers’ Washington is another player in contention for a starting spot.
Poland boss Nawalka is expected to line his team up in a 4-4-1-1 configuration, with Arek Milik tucked behind line-leader Robert Lewandowski. Sevilla’s Grzegorz Krychowiak is a key figure in midfield, while Kamil Grosicki and Jakub Blaszczykowski will be tasked with providing the width and supplying the ammunition for the front two. Centre-back Kamil Glik remains underrated, and it is a straight fight between former Arsenal team-mates Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny for the No. 1 shirt between the sticks.
Our Preview’s Poland v Northern Ireland Betting Tips
While Northern Ireland will be competitive and not make things easy for Poland, it is difficult to look past the latter triumphing in Group C’s opening game. Nawalka’s men seem a good dark horse pick for this summer’s competition and should simply prove too strong for the Northern Irish right across the pitch
So this preview’s verdict is that a 2-0 Poland victory is therefore worth backing, while the more favourable odds available on Milik to open the scoring as opposed to Lewandowski makes the Ajax frontman the better option.