NICE, France (AP) — The team has felt more pressure than this so there’s no need for the players to worry. That’s the message Northern Ireland’s coach Michael O’Neill is trying to instil in his team ahead of its first international tournament match in three decades against Poland.
Northern Ireland, which topped its group to qualify for the European Championship, is entering the competition on the back of a 12-game unbeaten run. Poland, though, will present a stiff challenge Sunday to a squad that draws many of its players from the lower leagues in English football.
“We need to embrace the whole situation, not fear it,” O’Neill said Saturday in a press conference ahead of the opening Group C match in Euro 2016. Germany meets Ukraine, the other two teams in the group, later Sunday.
He insisted that the pressure is nothing compared to October, when Northern Ireland beat Greece to secure qualification for its first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.
“There was more tension in that game arguably than there will be in the game tomorrow night, because there was so much at stake,” O’Neill said. “The players proved they were able to handle that situation.”
Northern Ireland will rely on its experienced defense to cope with Poland’s star striker Robert Lewandowski, who O’Neill described as one of the best two in the world.
O’Neill said that shouldn’t unduly concern players like Watford center back Craig Cathcart as they “play in the Premier League …. against world-class forwards every week.”
Northern Ireland fans have arrived in droves to the French Riviera city of Nice and a party atmosphere with Polish fans prevails.