Northern Ireland cruised through Euro qualifying, but it’s not like they faced stiff competition. It seemed inevitable that they would get exposed in the final tournament, and the 1-0 loss to Poland over the weekend appeared to confirm that. They didn’t manage a shot until the 66th minute of that game. In a group that also included Germany, Michael O’Neill’s side looked bereft of potential to get to the round of 16.
They flipped the script on Ukraine today, and no one could say that their 2-0 victory wasn’t deserved. O’Neill made five changes in the side, and it paid off. Northern Ireland walked away with their first major tournament win in 34 years.
There were questions of O’Neill when he made those changes to the side. Kyle Lafferty isn’t exactly a world-class No. 9, but at least he’s got Premier League experience under his belt. His replacement, Conor Washington, is only four years removed from the bottom of the English football pyramid. Right back Aaron Hughes is a 36-year-old center back currently playing in Australia. This seemed like suicide, especially against players of quality like Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka.
O’Neill’s changes worked. Instead of getting pinned back and packing numbers behind the ball, Northern Ireland pressed Ukraine aggressively. Konoplyanka was kept out of the final third and only made two key passes. Yarmolenko was barely able to create and only got one shot away. Jonny Evans and old man Hughes closed down the wide areas, and Ukraine never really got into the game. Northern Ireland only had 30 percent possession, but never looked out of control.
Now, the Green and White Army didn't have to break too much of a sweat, especially in the first half. The match opened up in the second 45, as the rain came pouring down. Even so, Ukraine could only get four of their 15 shots on target. Ten were outside the box. The game was put on hold to wait until the hailstorm—yes, a hailstorm—passed, but Ukraine were unable to alter the rhythm of the game. Leave it to yet another Northern Ireland replacement, Oliver Norwood, to deliver a free kick on a platter for Gareth McAuley’s goal.
This game was a must-win to keep Northern Ireland’s advancement hopes alive, and while nobody expects them to give Germany too many problems on Tuesday, they’ve shown that they can play. They were cohesive, aggressive and neutralized their opposition. They even got an insurance goal that could help them break a third-place tie. Their country may be small, but their football team is fun.