Northern Ireland may fancy their chances of defeating a Wales side missing Gareth Bale on Thursday evening, but boss Michael O’Neill admits the Real Madrid star would have provided a perfect test for their daunting Euro 2016 group.
The Dragons will be without both forward Bale and Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey in Cardiff due to respective calf and thigh injuries, and while O’Neill has lost Chris Brunt in recent weeks too, his men will be optimistic about their chances of recording a first victory over Wales in 36 years.
It is the first of four friendlies for both countries prior to Euro 2016 and O’Neill conceded that the challenge of shackling Bale, the world’s most expensive player, would have been the ideal preparation ahead of a tournament where they will come up against Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and Germany’s Thomas Muller.
“We know that when we go to France we’re going to play against some very good teams and teams with some exceptional individual players which Gareth Bale is – Aaron Ramsey comes into that category too,” O’Neill said.
“It would have been good for our preparations to have to deal with that but equally the fact they are not playing sets us a different challenge. It’s been difficult to give the players as much meaningful information as possible because of their absence.
“When you look at Wales over the qualifying campaign, you see how influential Gareth Bale was in terms of his number of goals and assists. Finding footage of Wales without Gareth Bale is quite difficult. We think we’ve given the best information we can.
“It would be great if he had have been able to play. Chris (Coleman) is like me, he probably knows the vast majority of his squad that are going to go to the tournament. I’m sure the players that come in will want to stake their claim for an opportunity in the summer as well.”
Welsh boss Coleman admitted he expected a “feisty” encounter at the Cardiff City Stadium, a theory that O’Neill does not totally subscribe to given both sets of players’ willingness to reach France injury-free.
“I think to an extent there will be an element of that,” he added of Coleman’s comments.
“At this stage of the season, both sets of players have their eye on the summer. We want the game to be competitive, but there is an element of common sense prevailing for both sides as well.”