Northern Ireland’s last-16 date with Wales in Paris is not being viewed as a French farewell for Kyle Lafferty as he thinks Michael O’Neill’s men can go all the way.
The teams meet at the Parc des Princes having both progressed through the group stages in their first European Championships, though Wales did so as winners while O’Neill’s team advanced as one of the best third-placed sides. That means the Welsh will arrive in the French capital as favourites to end the Northern Irish run, yet striker Lafferty holds belief they will not be returning to Britain and Ireland first.
“We played against Wales three or four months ago, we know about their players,” Lafferty said of the 1-1 draw contested in March. It’s going to be a tough game, they’ve got some world-class players but with our heart and determination we honestly believe we can go on and beat anyone.
“We’ll approach the game the same way we’ve approached Poland, Ukraine and Germany. With the squad we have, I’m honestly sitting here believing we can go the whole way. It might take some luck along the way but every team in the world is due some luck at times. I believe if we can get a bit of luck we can go all the way. We’ll upset a few.
“Coming here, I believed we could go the whole way with the whole squad, the way we’re fighting for each other and going the extra mile in games, it’s going to go a long way come the 90th minute. It’s going to be interesting to see who wants it the most come Saturday. The way we’ve played in the recent games, it’ll be interesting and I believe we will come out on top.”
That confidence stems from Lafferty’s appreciation of a stingy defence that has only conceded twice so far in the tournament. O’Neill’s back line have shipped just seven goals in their past 13 fixtures but now face the tournament’s joint top scorer Gareth Bale having kept the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Andriy Yarmolenko quiet.
“Gareth Bale is a stand-out player, you don’t play for Real Madrid if you’re an average player but I honestly believe we’ve got one of the best defences in the tournament,” Lafferty argued. I don’t think they’ve been given enough praise for what they’ve done. It’s going to be a tough game but hopefully we’ll be celebrating at the end.”
Meanwhile Wales talisman Bale won’t look past the North even if his ultimate goal is to win the tournament. Yes, we would love to win it, but all our focus is on Northern Ireland,” said Bale. “Until that whistle goes and we’re through we can’t think about it a second before.”
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