Michael O’Neill has described Poland’s Robert Lewandowski as one “one of the top two centre forwards in the world” ahead of Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 opener on Sunday.
Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski scored 30 goals in 32 Bundesliga games last season as Pep Guardiola’s men retained their title in style and another 13 to help Adam Nawalka’s men secure a place in France.
O’Neill rates the former Borussia Dortmund man highly – putting him on a par with Barcelona’s Luis Suarez – but is adamant his players will not be overawed when they meet in Nice.
The Northern Ireland boss said: “Lewandowski is, in my opinion, one of the top two centre forwards in the world – the other one won’t be at the Euros, he’ll be playing at the Copa America. If you ask any club if they’d take Lewandowski, they would.
“He is Poland’s talisman, he’s like Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the Swedish team, he’s a huge player with a big personality, the captain of the team.
“But we have three centre-halves [in the squad] that play in the Premier League, they play against top centre forwards every week – [Olivier] Giroud, [Diego] Costa – which is in our favour. I don’t think any of my players that play at centre-back will be overawed by playing against Lewandowski.
“They’ve played against the likes of [Cristiano] Ronaldo and other strikers of that calibre so we won’t have a situation of having to try to get to their level. We just have to be aware of their strengths.”
O’Neill was in bullish mood ahead of Northern Ireland’s first game at a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico – describing their preparation as “flawless” and allaying any injury concerns around striker Kyle Lafferty.
“It’s very exciting for us to be here after four weeks of preparation. We are confident we are in a strong position and we are looking forward to the game,” he added.
“The players are very well prepared, there’s no need for a final message, the preparation we have done has been flawless. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that a team has been as well prepared in terms of what we’ve managed to do.
“We have no doubt about Kyle’s fitness. We couldn’t be in better shape with regards the injury situation and the preparation of the team going into this game.”
O’Neill, however, retains great admiration for a Poland side rated by many as the team that could be the tournament’s surprise package.
“We have a lot of respect for Poland, we know their players very well,” he said.
“They came through a tough qualifying group and it was never in doubt that they would qualify. We know the quality of the players they have – they scored 33 goals in qualifying, albeit 15 against Gibraltar.
“We expect a tough game, the first one is always crucial in the tournament. We have the same level of respect for Poland that, hopefully, they have for us.”
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