By Brian Homewood
NICE, France (Reuters) – Poland face a test of patience and their nerves when they open their Euro 2016 campaign against a Northern Ireland side who want to make themselves “horrible” to play against.
Sunday’s group C match will pit one of the most attack-minded of the 24 teams at Euro 2016 against a team who have made no bones about their intentions.
Spearheaded by the attacking duo of Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik, Poland were the highest-scoring team in the qualifying competition with 33 goals, 13 of them coming from Bayern Munich’s Lewandowski.
Coach Adam Nawalka has turned them from a counter-attacking side into one that keeps possession and build attacks carefully.
He has also bucked the trend of teams playing with a single, or no, striker, expressly to give Lewandowski more support, a tactic which has worked wonders so far.
The huge expectations back home, however, will put Poland under considerable pressure as they attempt to pass the group stage at the Euros for the first time, and Northern Ireland are just the team to play on their anxiety.
Northern Ireland have limited resources but manager Michael O’Neill clearly knows their place and makes no apologies for a playing style which is likely to prove a test of endurance for spectators as well as the opposition.
“We are going to have to be horrible to play against,” he said recently. “We are going to be really good without the ball, run further than any other team, drill all the statistics back in their face. Sixty-five per cent possession? We don’t expect to have that.”
The Euro debutants’ squad includes 13 players based with lower-tier sides in England, five from the English Premier League, four from the Scottish Premier League and one from Australia’s A-League. None of them play in continental Europe.
Despite this, they conceded only eight goals in qualifying and are unbeaten in their last 12 matches, a run stretching back to March last year and the longest in the team’s history.
“It’s a fantastic achievement to be out here but having achieved that we want to leave our mark on the tournament,” said O’Neill. “There is a sense of excitement for all of us. This is a new experience for myself (and) for all of the players.”
(Editing by Clare Fallon)