WILL DYER (@W2Dyer) delivers his expert opinion on Northern Ireland’s first venture into the European Championships, against Poland on Sunday evening.
Poland v Northern Ireland | Sunday 17.00 | BBC1
Poland finished qualifying as the top scorers of all nine groups and 53 teams with a whopping 33 goals scored. It should be highlighted that 15 of those goals were scored in two fixtures against Gibraltar but it’s also notable that they managed nine goals more than world champions Germany.
The Germans weren’t their only test as it was by no means an easy qualifying group; Georgia were a stubborn opponent and showed that in their 1-0 friendly victory over Spain in midweek.
As for Northern Ireland, the Green & White army were fabulous – there’s no getting away from that. Michael O’Neill’s men posted a W6-D3-L1 record in qualifying, scored in all bar two games, were unbeaten at home and topped their group to make it on the plane to their first ever European Championship.
A key discussion point of Norn Iron’s prospects at the Euros is the strength of their qualifying group. It certainly was weaker than most but it was still tricky.
Romania and Hungary are defensively strong teams. The former conceded just two goals over the course of 10 games and whilst Finland are in a bit of a slump they aren’t complete minnows.
Greece were abysmal but there were problems for the nation on and off the pitch and the Faroe Islands were competitive in most matches. As a result, Norn Iron’s pool was the only qualifying group that didn’t see a team concede 18 goals or more.
Northern Ireland’s sole defeat came at the hands of Romania (0-2). The side failed to score against the Romanians home and away and that tells me they will find it tough once they arrive at the tournament.
The bookies consider Romania to be as big as 260/1 shots to go the distance so Poland (who are only available at 50/1) should prove an even sterner test.
Norn Iron are unbeaten in their last 12 international games since a friendly defeat to Scotland in March 2015 but the best sides they’ve played in that run are Romania, Wales and Slovakia. And O’Neill’s troops only managed a draw against all three, scoring just once.
I make it highly likely that Poland keep a clean sheet in this game but the Win ‘To Nil’ market is too short for me at 31/20.
Poland’s defence is built around Kamil Glik, who’s a pretty experienced defender plying his trade for Torino. At right-back they have the supremely experienced Lukasz Piszczek and in goal they will probably opt for Lukasz Fabianski.
Maciej Rybus misses out through injury, which is a blow, but with up-and-coming players covered by the back-to-back Europa League winner Grzegorz Krychowiak, this team will be hard to score against.
In midfield the poles have Kamil Grosicki on the left and Jakub Błaszczykowski. Both provide pace and creativity and play in Europe’s top divisions. Sebastian Mila was a shock exclusion from the squad but it’s reported he had a poor season for Lechia Gdansk and is nearly 34.
The White Eagles’ loss to Netherlands last week was far from ideal preparation, as was the 0-0 draw with Lithuania but it should be noted that Robert Lewandowski played no part in that game. The Bayern Munich striker scored 13 goals in qualifying – two more than any other player – and he comes in off the back of another exceptional season.
Lewandowski is partnered by Arkadiusz Milik – scorer of 24 goals for Ajax and six in qualifying during a stellar campaign – and the second striker is an excellent 21/10 with PaddyPower to score here in their opener.
Northern Ireland unfortunately cannot match the star quality that Poland have. What they lack in big names, they make up for in team play and work ethic. Aside from the ageing Aaron Hughes, their whole squad play in the British leagues.
Only five Norn Iron players represent teams from the Premier League but captain Steven Davis had a great campaign for Southampton, scoring more than usual (five league goals) and putting in a lot of groundwork that saw Saints post a remarkable sixth-placed finish.
O’Neill also has eight players that have 40 or more caps in their 23-man squad and the defence is pretty solid with the partnership of Gareth McCauley and Jonny Evans, both coming from West Brom.
Centre back is a position of great depth and something England are probably jealous of. Craig Cathcart and Paddy McNair are options and that could see the Northern Ireland coach opt for a five-man defence, similar to what was employed against Slovakia last weekend.
However, Chris Brunt will be sorely missed. The West Brom skipper, who’s made 314 appearances for his side, has also picked up 51 caps for his country and provides goals, organisation and passion. Without that I see N.I lacking inspiration.
Up front the goalscoring duty hangs on one Kyle Lafferty. The Norn Iron front man scored seven in qualifying but suffered a huge injury scare recently in training. Everyone seems confident he will play though after returning to training this week and tweeting upbeat messages.
Overall though Poland look to have a lot stronger side and I think they’ll keep Norn Iron pretty quiet at the Allianz Riviera in Nice. Adam Nawalka’s men have a very dangerous attack and quality players in every position.
I think Poland’s best bet will be to play direct rather than focus on the flanks. This should see Milik become a focal point of the side and link up with Lewandowski in a short passing game.
Northern Ireland lack experience on the big stage and Poland should capitalise. I’m backing the Poles at -1 on the Asian Handicap – we’ll get our money back if they win by just one goal but get paid out at 25/18 with BetVictor should they win by a margin of two goals or more.
I reckon Poland will translate their great goalscoring form from qualifying to France very nicely and are well worth supporting here.
Poland v Northern Ireland – Poland -1 Asian Handicap (25/18 BetVictor)
Poland v Northern Ireland – Arkadiusz Milik to score at anytime (21/10 Paddy Power)