Wales may have voted to leave and Northern Ireland to stay, but on the football pitch, at least, both countries will be united Saturday in Paris toward the goal of remaining a part of Europe. In a battle of Britain — which may not last much longer after the divides exposed in the momentous European Union referendum vote Thursday — two teams that have long been in the doldrums have a golden opportunity to reach the quarterfinals of Euro 2016.
It would be easy to conclude that both teams have been beneficiaries of the expanded European Championship format. The number of teams have been increased from 16 to 24 for the first time, and the four best third-place teams in France made the knockout phase. Both will have cause to dispute that. Northern Ireland finished at the top of its qualifying group, while Wales took four points from two games with Belgium in its qualification and finished at the top of its group, ahead of England, at Euro 2016.
After its recent success in France, opportunity appears to be knocking particularly loudly for Wales. In its first major tournament in 58 years, Wales has risen to the occasion, edging past Slovakia and even shaking off the disappointment of a last-gasp defeat to England to produce a fine performance, brushing Russia aside 3-0.
The display against Russia highlighted Wales’ strengths — an ability to be solid and organized without the ball, to punish opponents going forward through a gifted midfield and the solo attacking inspiration of the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale.
The Real Madrid star has scored in each of Wales’ three games so far and has appeared to revel in the role of carrying his country on his shoulders — just as he did in qualifying, when scoring seven of his team’s 11 goals.
The top spot in Group B has also earned Wales a place in the more favorable side of the draw. Bale has confirmed that his team has lofty ambitions, although he insists that Wales is not looking past Northern Ireland.
"Obviously you come to the tournament for one reason — to win, not to play three games and go home," Bale said at a press conference. “The ultimate goal is we want to try and win the tournament. It's a cliché, but we'll take each one as it comes. Yes, we would love to win it, but all our focus now is on Northern Ireland.”
Northern Ireland is just the sort of team to exploit a team that takes it eye off the ball. A lineup short on star power but long on unity and organization delighted its fans with a 2-0 win over Ukraine to extend its run at its first major tournament in 30 years.
Those three points were enough to seal progress as one of the four best third-place teams, despite defeats by Poland and Germany in which goalkeeper Michael McGovern crucially preserved Northern Ireland’s goal difference with some fine saves.
After the final results of the group stage confirmed Northern Ireland’s fate in the Round of 16, coach Michael O’Neill admitted that he was happy with the draw.
“The results in the final group games put us in what is arguably the more favorable side of the draw, so we are pleased about that,” he said. “We are in no doubt that it is going to be a tough game against Wales but we will go into the match believing that we can win and that we can progress.”
Prediction: It is no surprise that Premier League referee Martin Atkinson has been chosen to officiate this contest, for it promises to be a very typical British affair. Northern Ireland will doubtless look to get men behind the ball and take its chances on counter-attacks and set-pieces. Given O’Neill’s shrewd coaching, Northern Ireland’s chances cannot be written off. Wales will likely have to take the responsibility to be more positive, something that doesn’t come naturally to Coleman’s side. However, with confidence high after dismantling Russia and possessing the outstanding individuals in the contest, Wales should just progress.
Predicted score: Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland
Kickoff Time: Noon EDT
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Stream: Watch ESPN