It required something remarkable for Michael O’Neill to surpass his achievement of guiding Northern Ireland into their first European Championships as winners of their qualifying group. Something remarkable happened in Lyon.
A masterful performance from players and manager alike condemned Ukraine to deserved defeat and revitalised Northen Ireland’s hopes of reaching the last 16.
For the second match in succession Northern Ireland players slumped to their knees on the final whistle only this time it was to absorb the magnitude of victory. Gareth McAuley headed home the country’s first goal at a European Championships before substitute Niall McGinn sealed the win in stoppage time. Substitutions were just one aspect of the game that O’Neill called to perfection.
The threat of elimination from the tournament prompted the boldest moves of O’Neill’s reign as manager. Out went Kyle Lafferty and four others from Sunday’s starting line-up against Poland, the leading goalscorer in qualification arguably paying the price for the groin injury suffered in training last week plus a limited contribution in Nice. Another surprise was the inclusion of Aaron Hughes over Paddy McNair at right-back. The 36-year-old is without a club following his release by Melbourne City and his 101st cap came with the condition of stifling Yevhen Konoplyanka, the Sevilla winger who represented Ukraine’s biggest threat along with Andriy Yarmolenko on the opposite flank.
It was a selection call that guaranteed condemnation for O’Neill if it went awry for Northern Ireland once again, yet vindication arrived swiftly. His team were vastly improved on the ball and as an attacking unit, albeit while continuing to struggle for a cutting edge, and retained their defensive solidity despite the switch to a more adventurous 4-3-2-1 formation.
Intent was evident from the moment Ukraine kicked off and Jamie Ward, Conor Washington and Steven Davis sprinted into a press that forced the right-back, Artem Fedetskiy, to concede a throw-in. If Northern Ireland were going out, it would not be quietly. Stuart Dallas’s angled shot from distance after four minutes meant they already had more shots on target than in the entire Poland match. Had their final ball improved, they may well have converted their first goal too. Deservedly.
Ukraine had more possession in the first half, but were unable to create a chance of note as Jonny Evans and Hughes stuck limpet-like to Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko respectively. The key men for the Ukraine coach, Mykhailo Fomenko, were given little time or space on the ball and struggled to cut inside due to Northern Ireland’s willingness to double-up on them when in possession. Whenever crosses did arrive in the penalty area, McAuley and Craig Cathcart were alert to the danger.
Northern Ireland constructed the more threatening moves by far but the final touch proved maddeningly elusive in the first half. Washington was unable to connect cleanly with an inviting low cross from Ward to the near post. Cathcart headed just over from Ward’s corner, goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov saved from McAuley and Washington picked out Ward unmarked at the back post with a deep cross. The Nottingham Forest midfielder had Corry Evans unmarked and demanding the ball in front of goal but failed to find him with the cross. Another opening went begging when Washington miscued a simple pass towards Stuart Dallas as he sprinted through the centre of the Ukraine defence.
There was a poignant moment in the 24th minute when Northern Ireland supporters applauded en masse in memory of Darren Rodgers, the 24-year-old fan who died following a fall in Nice on Monday. Worryingly, another Northern Ireland fan was carried away by medics in the second half. There was also farce when the Czech referee Pavel Kralovec ordered the teams off during a second-half hailstorm, only to bring them back on again within seconds once the skies had cleared.
Northern Ireland players beseeched the referee not to halt play and with good reason. They were ahead thanks to a magnificent McAuley header. O’Neill had lamented his team’s lack of quality at set-pieces after the Poland game, but there were no complaints when Oliver Norward drove a free-kick from the left over the defence and McAuley, running on the blind side of Yevhen Khacheridi, launched himself at the ball. Mid-air, the West Bromwich Albion defender guided a superb header beyond Pyatov and inside the far post, sparking euphoric scenes among the green behind the goal.
Yevhen Seleznyov almost equalised from a similar routine within a minute but steered his header straight at Michael McGovern. The Northern Ireland keeper was about to start a demanding shift, saving from Konoplyanka and from Yarmolenko when the latter was finally able to cut inside onto his favoured left foot in the 89th minute.
The pressure and the tension was mounting on McGovern’s goal but it evaporated in stoppage time when Northern Ireland doubled their lead thanks to two substitutes. Josh Magennis, preferred to Lafferty as O’Neill changed his front line, broke clear down the right and crossed for Dallas. His low shot was parried by Pyatov but McGinn, who had dummied the initial cross to allow Dallas to shoot, was on hand to convert from close range.
At that moment, no word of a lie, a rainbow appeared above Stade de Lyon.
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