Wales vs Northern Ireland is not a last 16 match of Euro 2016 many would have predicted, but having merited their places in the knockouts, with some fabulous group stage performances, the two teams will want to show they belong on the big stage when they face off at the Parc des Princes in Paris on Saturday.
Both teams have done splendidly well to qualify for the last 16, but it is Wales who have caught the eye the most, winning two of their three group stage matches. The first one came against Slovakia, when Gareth Bale and a late Hal Robson-Kanu effort got them over the line, while the second win was the most impressive of them all – a 3-0 defeat of Russia, with Aaron Ramsey, Neil Taylor and Gareth Bale scoring the goals.
Bale, of course, has been the key for Wales, netting in all three of their matches, and the Real Madrid man will be pivotal, again, if his country are to move into the quarterfinals of Euro 2016. On paper, Wales have been given one of the kinder last 16 draws – not even remotely as unlucky as Italy, for instance, who topped their group, only to draw Spain in the pre-quarterfinals – but as Northern Ireland showed in the group stages, they are a really tough nut to crack at the back.
In three of their matches, they only conceded two goals – even the world champions Germany could score just one past Northern Ireland -- and the likes of Bale, Aaron Ramsey and the rest of the Wales attack will need to be at their absolute best to find a way through this well-marshalled defence.
"We've been extremely strong defensively," Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill told UEFA's official website. "You only have to look at Tuesday night (against Germany), we played against a team of world class players and gave a performance which was fantastic.
"So, we'll be ready to deal with Gareth Bale. We know his threat, his threat at setpieces, his running power, his pace, his goal threat, all those things. But we're ready to deal with that and the main thing for me is to focus on how we are as a team.
"Our strength has been our defensive shape as a team. Yes, we need Gareth Bale to have a quiet night but it's up to us to ensure that's the case."
If Northern Ireland do that, they can hope to better the 1-1 result they produced against Wales in an international friendly in Cardiff in March – a match that did not have either Bale or Ramsey in the lineup -- with O'Neill's men also having the advantage of having already played at the Parc des Princes, when they went down narrowly to Germany.
What also works in Northern Ireland's favour is that the last time Wales played a home nation in Euro 2016, they lost 2-1 to England, with the latter dominating the game from start to finish. Chris Coleman put that defeat down to the emotions of the derby getting to Wales, and the manager is keen to turn the sentiments aside and just concentrate on the job at hand, much like they did when they beat Russia.
"When we had the ball (against England), we never played anywhere near our capabilities, because we got caught up with all the emotion of the game, because it was a derby," Coleman was quoted as saying by The Guardian. "That's what we needed to put right in the game against Russia, which we did.
"So, as much as we can, we need to take the emotion out of it against Northern Ireland."
Where to Watch Live
Wales vs Northern Ireland is scheduled for a 6 p.m. local time (9.30 p.m. IST, 5 p.m. BST, 12 p.m. ET) start. The TV and live streaming information, all of it, is below.
UK and Ireland: TV: BBC One. Live Streaming: BBC iPlayer.
France: TV: Bein Sports. Live Streaming: Bein Sports Connect.
USA: TV: ESPN and ESPN 3. Live Streaming: Watch ESPN.
Canada: TV: TSN and RDS. Live Streaming: TSN TV.
Australia: TV: Bein Sports and SBS One. Live Streaming: Bein Sports Connect.
China and Hong Kong: TV: CCTV and LeTV.
Thailand: TV: Channel 3.
Singapore: TV: Eleven Singapore and Singtel. Live Streaming: Singtel Go.
Malaysia: TV: Astro.
Latin America: TV: DirecTV.
Middle East and North Africa: TV: Bein Max 2 and Bein Max 3. Live Streaming: Bein SportsConnect.
South Africa and Sub Saharan Africa: TV: SuperSport 3. Live Streaming: SuperSport