Poland striker Robert Lewandowski the danger for Northern Ireland
ESPN staff
June 11, 2016
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Poland take on Northern Ireland in the opening match of Euro 2016's Group C on Sunday. Both sides will have a great chance to progress if they can pick up an early win.

Ryan Hubbard (Poland) and Julian Taylor (Northern Ireland) look ahead to Sunday's showdown.

What's at stake here?

RH: Four years ago, Poland drew their Euro 2012 opener, and ended up crashing-out of their home tournament after just three games. A repeat four years later doesn't bear thinking about. With the possibility of three progressing from a group, a solitary win could be enough to achieve the Poles' minimum target; and the opener against Northern Ireland is arguably their best opportunity to achieve this. On paper it may be their easiest game of the tournament, but the pre-Euro warm-ups have only created more questions than have been answered. Adam Nawalka's side will take nothing for granted.

JT: Manager Michael O'Neill has insisted ever since the group draw was made that the Poland game was going to determine Northern Ireland's ultimate fate. The Irish are not viewing their French experience as a working holiday. O'Neill has a virtually fully fit squad primed and there is a feeling that if the threat of Robert Lewandowski is contained then Northern Ireland have a great chance to take a point. However, questions remain over Kyle Lafferty's fitness. If the striker fails to recover, it's very difficult to see where the goals will come from -- other than set-pieces.

Key Battle

RH: Gareth McAuley vs. Robert Lewandowski

Despite his Premier League experience, McAuley will have not come up against many strikers of Lewandowski's calibre. The West Brom centre-back may have strength and aerial ability on his side, but over the last few years Lewandowski has developed into an intelligent striker who moves well without the ball, creating room for his teammates. Not to mention his goal scoring record. If O'Neill's side wish to come away from Nice with anything, keeping the five-time Polish Player of the Year contained will be a must. But if they allow Lewa half a yard, they will be punished.

JT: Chris Baird vs. Arkadiusz Milik

While Lewandowski will take "a lot of looking after" according to McAuley, nullifying the underrated threat of Ajax star Milik will be down to Baird. Milik, 22, is on an upward career curve, having netted 21 goals in 31 games last season for the Dutch giants and the Euros provide a fine platform, particularly with reported interest from Liverpool, Everton and Leicester. Derby County's Baird, capped 77 times, is an expert reader of the game. Tracking Milik's runs as he attempts to link intelligently with Lewandowski on the edge of the penalty area is absolutely vital.

Star Man

RH: Grzegorz Krychowiak. Provided he's back to full fitness following a late-season knock, Sevilla's Krychowiak will provide invaluable bite in the middle-of-the-park. Along with Lewandowski and defender Kamil Glik, the 26-year-old is an integral part of the Polish team's experienced spine, around which their creative teammates feel the security to flourish. Strong and fearless in the tackle, "Krycha" likes to play the ball out of the midfield; yet he is as equally adept at spraying a cross-field pass should he see the chance of a quick break. If Poland get a set-piece, it's worth watching his run into the box too.

JT: Gareth McAuley. As Lafferty battles to win a race against time for fitness, and Steven Davis well known as Northern Ireland's chief creator, another, unofficial, on-field leader, McAuley, will embark on one of the most exacting games of his long international career. Naturally, his main responsibility is to contain Lewandowski, but with O'Neill's men not expected to enjoy copious possession, they need to maximise clear set-piece threats. The West Brom man is Northern Ireland's all-time joint top scoring defender with seven goals and Poland are sure to be alert to his occasional forward raids if given the opportunity.

Prediction

RH: 2-1. A cagey affair settled by either a moment of brilliance or a showing of nerves, effectively putting Poland within reach of a second-round tie.

JT: 1-1. Northern Ireland are unlikely to keep Lewandowski quiet throughout, yet they have shown tremendous resilience in qualifying, so their hopes depend massively on Lafferty's fitness.

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