Kyle Lafferty claims Northern Ireland have one of Euro 2016’s best defences and believes they will be a tough opponent in the knockout stages.
Michael O’Neill’s men booked a last-16 meeting with hosts France or neighbours Wales after keeping a rampant Germany to a 1-0 win at Parc des Princes, enough to progress in third place with three points.
That was made possible by their neutral goal difference, having scored two and conceded two in a tough group containing Ukraine and Poland as well as the world champions.
Much of Northern Ireland’s squad is sourced from the Championship or Scotland, but their back four contains Premier League regulars Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart as well as 102-cap veteran Aaron Hughes, whose former clubs include Newcastle, Fulham and Aston Villa.
Behind them is goalkeeper Michael McGovern, who turned in a career-best performance to repeatedly deny Germany on Tuesday, and Lafferty is confident that can be the basis of an underdog success story.
“We’ve probably got one of the best defences in the tournament,” said Lafferty.
“We’ve come up against world-class players and kept them relatively quiet. We’ve only conceded two goals in three games which isn’t bad considering the players we’ve been up against.
“No matter who we come up against we’ll fancy our chances. It’s a one-off game now and I’m sure we’ll go into it thinking we can get a victory.
“We kept going until the 93rd minute against Germany because we knew 1-0 wasn’t a bad result and it had a massive say in our goal difference.
“To leave with that result is something we can take a lot of positives from.”
Lafferty was superb for Northern Ireland in qualification, scoring seven goals in nine appearances to guide them to a first ever European Championship and end a tournament drought stretching 30 years.
But he was dropped after the 1-0 defeat to Poland in favour of QPR’s Conor Washington and played no part in the historic 2-0 win over Ukraine.
Now the 28-year-old is hoping he has a role to play in the remainder of the competition.
“When I was given a chance to come on I just wanted to do enough to put a doubt in Michael O’Neill’s head,” he said.
“I wanted to show I’m still hungry, I still want to play and I’ve still got a goal in me. I didn’t get a chance but that had a lot to do with the team we were up against.
“Whoever we get in the next stage we’ll need to put our strongest XI on the pitch and hopefully I’ll be in it.”