Euro 2016

Euro 2016: Upscale Bale to face Northern Ireland's free agent

Michael McGovern, who is in good form, will need to shut out the equally on-fire Gareth Bale in today's round-of-16 clash between Northern Ireland and Wales.
Michael McGovern, who is in good form, will need to shut out the equally on-fire Gareth Bale in today's round-of-16 clash between Northern Ireland and Wales.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Wales' talisman to test the safe hands of Northern Ireland's McGovern

ROUND OF 16

Wales v Northern Ireland

Singtel TV Ch142 & StarHub Ch220, 11.50pm

PARIS • The world's most expensive player, Gareth Bale of Wales, will face an ageing goalkeeper looking for a club in today's intriguing all-United Kingdom showdown against fellow debutants Northern Ireland for a place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.

Bale, who has scored a goal in each game so far to help Wales top their group, was expected to shine on the pitches of France.

It is a different story for Michael McGovern, whose heroics in the Northern Ireland goal have earned him a comparison to the great Pat Jennings by coach Michael O'Neill.

While Bale, 26, features prominently in the star-studded Real Madrid outfit, the 31-year-old McGovern is a free agent whose contract with struggling Scottish side Hamilton Academical has just expired.

The two now hold the key to today's battle of the European Championship first-timers at Parc des Princes, which Wales (population 3.1 million) will start with an advantage after their confident and convincing displays in the group stages.

Northern Ireland (population 1.8 million), making their first appearance at a major tournament since the 1982 World Cup, advanced as one of the best third-placed teams, taking full advantage of the expanded 24-team format which helped the less-fancied sides win a moment in the sun.

They enjoyed that moment, showing plenty of fighting spirit, helped by a string of fine saves from McGovern, who was instrumental in limiting the damage in a 1-0 defeat by Germany.

The Irish backline have let in seven goals in their past 13 fixtures but have kept players such as Robert Lewandowski and Andriy Yarmolenko quiet.

"A few people didn't give us a chance of getting a point when the draw was made," said defender Gareth McAuley. "But that's what Northern Ireland are all about - proving people wrong."

It cannot be argued that Wales are not highly dependent on Bale, with the world record £85 million (S$157.5 million) forward having scored seven of their 11 goals in qualifying before hitting three more in the opening phase of the tournament.

"At times, Bale has won games extraordinarily," said Wales coach Chris Coleman. "I can understand the one-man team tag if you have a player like him. He fits our style of play and he enjoys it."

Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty matched Bale's feats in qualifying by scoring seven goals to send the Irish to their first major tournament in 30 years.

But, having started only one of his side's three games in the group stage, the Norwich City frontman was temporarily flustered by the comparison.

"I don't know what to say about that," said the 28-year-old. "I scored a few in the qualifiers, I haven't got off the mark yet and obviously what a stage it would be to do that on Saturday."

Wales are likely to take the initiative in today's game with Northern Ireland shutting up shop at the back to rely on their trademark, counter-attacking tactics.

The winners will go on to meet Hungary or Belgium in Lille.

Whatever happens today, both teams know they can rely on some of the most passionate fans in the tournament and there should be plenty of colour and noise in the Parc des Princes stands.

"Geographically, we're small, but if you judge it on passion, we're a continent," Coleman said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'Upscale Bale versus free agent'. Print Edition | Subscribe