Michael O’Neill has told Northern Ireland to improve “the ugly part” of their game on Thursday yet taken exception to Ukraine’s Ruslan Rotan describing his team as reliant on physicality, high balls and scrambles.
Ukraine “are not playing a Spanish style of football” retorted the manager ahead of a contest that may well determine Northern Ireland’s fate at their first European Championship.
Northern Ireland and Ukraine both suffered defeat in their opening matches, against Poland and Germany respectively, heightening the importance of their encounter in Lyon. Rotan, the Ukraine midfielder, said Northern Ireland are the most British team at the tournament in terms of style, one he claimed was based on “great physical preparation, strong flanks, high crosses and lots of scrambling”. The description has not gone down well with the first manager to win a qualifying group with a team drawn from pot five, and who did so not by “scrambling”.
“It’s interesting that statement was made,” said O’Neill, who may change his selection and formation for the second game in Group C. “I looked at the statistics in the Germany game and Ukraine’s possession was not particularly high [37%]. They also played a lot of long balls, which is very British. Ukraine are a very physical team. If you look at the amount of yellow and red cards the Ukrainians gained through qualification, they are not playing a Spanish style of football.”
O’Neill admitted Northern Ireland’s attacking threat must improve with Kyle Lafferty isolated for long periods against Poland and Steven Davis, given the onerous task of supporting the lone striker while trying to marshal Grzegorz Krychowiak in midfield, starved of possession. Having frequently mentioned the threat posed by the Ukrainian wide men Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka in the build-up to the game, a four-man defence with Jonny Evans at left-back is also under consideration.
The manager said: “What the tournament has shown is that all games are tight. That’s most important. We recognise where we need to be better, I don’t think we needed that reassurance of ‘Do we belong here?’ We felt that all along but we must demonstrate that against a strong Ukrainian team. We saw things in the Germany game that we didn’t expect. We thought Ukraine may have been more defensive. They were a threat at set-pieces. We recognise their strengths and we have to be prepared to match the physicality. What we didn’t do against Poland was the ugly part of the game and that’s something we generally always do well. When I say ugly I mean in terms of the competitiveness.”
Uefa have granted Northern Ireland’s request to wear black armbands in memory of Darren Rodgers, the 24-year-old fan who died in Nice on Monday after falling 26ft from a promenade, but not for a minute’s silence before the game. Northern Ireland supporters plan to applaud during the 24th minute as a mark of respect to Rodgers. Davis, the captain, said: “It would be nice to go and get a positive result in Darren’s memory. We always give 100% effort, but hopefully what has happened can spur us on even more.”
The Northern Ireland manager selected a training base and hotel close to Lyon specifically with the Ukraine game in mind. O’Neill believes straightforward preparations could be a deciding factor in what he has labelled “a cup final” for his team.
He explained: “Although it was not a big journey to Nice it was still time consuming because of security. We haven’t got that for this game. It was one of the factors in deciding to base ourselves here. It’s 45 minutes to get here and we haven’t had to change hotel. Having lost the first game, there’s a natural fear of when do you go home. Other teams will feel the same and we have to make sure that’s a motivation. We love our base and want to stay there as long as possible. We have to play it like a cup final because we know the significance of three points.”
There was a lighter moment at the pre-match press conference when Davis was asked about being the first player at the tournament to take a one-man kick-off, as he did against Poland. The Southampton midfielder explained: “Uefa spoke to us about rule changes and it was something we were going to do in the Slovakia friendly. The referee said no at that point. The reason is to get an extra player out wide from kick-off. Kyle was the target for the next ball. I believe we were one of the first teams to do it. A little piece of history.”
O’Neill interjected: “We’re hoping it’s not the highlight of the tournament.”
Ukraine’s press conference also veered away from the game when defender Artem Fedetskiy was asked about a claim in Bild, the German newspaper, that their players smoked cigarettes and drank beer in the dressing room after defeat by Germany. “We have no players who drink beer,” said Fedetskiy, with a straight face. “Maybe someone wants to provoke us. We behave in a civilised way. You can check the DNA from the cigarettes.”
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