Northern Ireland: What can we expect from them at Euro 2016?
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Northern Ireland: What can we expect from them at Euro 2016?

Key players

Kyle Lafferty (seven goals in the qualifying campaign), Steven Davis (captain) and Johnny Evans (ex-Manchester United, now a solid choice for West Brom).

Potential weak links

Roy Carroll (despite saving a penalty in his previous game, and surpassing all expectation thus far, age is not on his side).

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Potential problems

The lack of major tournament experience and Premier League experience is likely going to be a hindrance for Northern Ireland this summer.

What would help getting through the group?

With the team spirit and determination that saw them wash aside most of their qualifying group, they stand a chance in the games against Poland and Ukraine. As for the Germany match, it is going to seem like an impossible mountain to climb. However, we’ve already seen a famous win over Germany for the Republic of Ireland in October and, more recently, England’s 3-2 triumph in Berlin.

Summary

Coming into the season close and before the remaining friendlies ahead of this summer's tournament, Northern Ireland have managed to go on spectacular 10-game unbeaten run, beating the previous record set in 1986 by Billy Bingham's side.

Michael O’Neill’s side have been one of the surprise packages in international football over the last two years, and its also worth mentioning that Northern Ireland are the first ever Pot Five side to have ever topped a group in European qualifying history.

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That's rather remarkable for a side that after seven months into O’Neill’s reign were placed at 129th in the FIFA Rankings, were as they now are 28th, one place below their all-time best of 27th, which first came in 2007 after David Healy had gone an stupendous goal-scoring splurge.

This summer’s tournament in France will be the first time that Northern Ireland have reached a major finals in 30 years, that being the World Cup in Mexico 1986.

In their group for Euro 2016 they have been drawn in Group C against Poland (Sunday, June 12), Ukraine (Thursday, June 16), and lastly Germany (Tuesday, June 21).

For Northern Ireland to progress into the next stage of Euro 2016 they will need to be at their strongest for those first two games, and all the focus will have to be on giving Poland a damn good run for their money.

Poland are a strong side, and in a qualifying campaign which saw them topple Germany 2-0, as well as picking up a draw and a win against the Republic of Ireland, it is going to be a fixture that Northern will need to be well prepared for as it’ll be arguably their toughest competitive challenge since losing 4-2 to Portugal in September 2013 during the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Nevertheless, Northern Ireland picked up some fine wins in their recent qualifying campaign, the two victories over Greece and the 2-1 away victory over Hungary ranking as the particular highlights.

It would be foolish to underestimate Northern Ireland coming into Euro 2016, and Ukraine and Germany will also be aware of this. Having won more away games (three) in the qualifying campaign then they had won in the previous 13 years, the mood and the feeling around the Northern Irish camp at the moment must be similar to that of euphoria.

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O’Neill, in particular, deserves all the plaudits that he gets and it would be a surprise if a top Premier League club didn’t poach him in the coming years. More recently O'Neill pulled off another stroke of genius by allowing Conor Washington to feature in the recent two friendlies to gain his first two caps.

The QPR man has been in serious goal scoring form in the Football League this season, and after his impressive debut, followed by a goal in the 1-0 win against Slovenia, it's likely that Washington will have earned his place come selection day.

People also tend to forget that Northern Ireland (in the last squad count) only had five Premier League players representing them across the two most recent matches; where as sides like England and Wales now boast a healthy selection of players to choose from across a variety of the top leagues.

For a nation that only holds 1.8million, Northern Ireland has somehow found itself trotting on gloriously to the summer's biggest event and it's inevitable that O’Neill’s boys will be full of good spirits and high hopes going into that first showdown with the ever-so-strong Poland.