(Reuters) - Manager Michael O‘Neill has backed Northern Ireland to get past the group stage at next month’s European Championship and is looking to follow the example of Premier League champions Leicester City against his team’s more illustrious rivals.
O‘Neill’s men, who finished top of their qualifying group and are making their first appearance at a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, have been drawn in Group C with Germany, Poland and Ukraine.
“I‘m not expecting to be in the tournament on July 10 (the date of the final), but equally, I‘m hoping I‘m not going home on June 23 (the day after the group stage ends). We’re the type of country no one wants to play,” O‘Neill told British media.
O‘Neill expects Northern Ireland to take the battle to their rivals, despite a squad containing several players from England’s lower divisions, such as Conor McLaughlin, a defender with third-tier side Fleetwood Town.
“I was interviewed by the Polish media and one guy was almost insulting, saying, ‘You’ve got players from Fleetwood.’ I said, ‘We have, but we also won our group to get to the Euros,'” O‘Neill added.
The manager is hopeful his team can take maximum points in two of their three group matches to advance to the Round of 16.
“The expectation of Ukraine and Poland is that they should beat us, a tiny country,” he said.
“Leicester are what we have to look to. We look at teams like Atletico Madrid when they won the league and almost won the Champions League. They were difficult to beat, built off being a threat at set pieces. We reinforced that to the players.”
Reporting by Ian Rodricks in Bengaluru; Editing by John O'Brien