Wales’ Gareth Bale and Wayne Hennessey during training - REUTERS
Reuters: The world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale of Wales, will face an ageing goalkeeper looking for a club in Saturday’s intriguing all-British 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 ahead of England, 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 Martin 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 Saturday’s battle of the European championship first-timers at Parc des Princes, which Wales will start with an advantage after their convincing displays in the group stages showcased Bale’s pace, skills and set-piece expertise.
Northern Ireland, 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 world champions Germany.
“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, the world record 85 million pounds ($121.21 million) forward having scored seven of their 11 goals in qualifying before hitting three more in the opening phase of the tournament to top the scorers’ table alongside Spain’s Alvaro Morata.
“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 who plays for Real Madrid. He fits our style of play and he enjoys it.”
Wales are likely to take the initiative in Saturday’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 on Saturday, 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 in a statement that his Northern Ireland counterpart could also make his own.