Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Northern Ireland can be kings of Lyon - O'Neill's final call to arms for Ukraine clash

Manager urges players to go extra mile and secure victory

By Steven Beacom

This is it. No holding back now. Northern Ireland must win. Nothing else will do against Ukraine in the imposing Stade de Lyon tonight.

If Michael O'Neill's men are not victorious in their second Group C clash they will have to beat world champions Germany next week to have any chance of qualifying for the knockout stages. And even the Northern Ireland players will admit in the fairytale, which has taken the country to a first major tournament in 30 years, that may be a chapter too far.

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A top two spot in their group will see Northern Ireland into the last 16. The more likely avenue is to pick up one of the four best third placed finishes. The loss to Poland on opening night in Nice means that the 90 minutes against Ukraine will dictate how long Northern Ireland will stay in France.

O'Neill knows it and his team know it. They are not ready to think about packing their bags for home just yet. The Northern Ireland boss says his players will be perfectly prepared and insists they will produce a better performance than the one on show against the Poles.

More: Ukraine v Northern Ireland: Make or break for Northern Ireland - Michael O'Neill

"There were positives and negatives from that game. Defensively we were very strong but equally we struggled to impose ourselves offensively in the game and that was our biggest challenge," he said.

"It was just a case of us needing to be better with the ball and I felt in the first 15 minutes of the game they really imposed their physicality on us - we didn't win enough challenges and we didn't win enough headers.

"As a result of that we ended up defending deep and camped in our own half."

O'Neill has told his players that cannot be allowed to happen again.

The manager's tactics were set out to stifle Poland on Sunday. Asked if he would have changed anything, he said: "I read somewhere that we played 5-3-1-1. We didn't. The only difference we changed in the system from 3-5-2 was to play Steven (Davis) off Kyle (Lafferty) which is a position Steven has played for his club.

"The reason we did that was to try and get Steven around Grzegorz Krychowiak, to try and stop him as we thought Krychowiak would run the game for them.

"Equally we thought there would be opportunities for Steven to get away from him - that would have been more difficult with two strikers. You would have been continually asking a striker to drop back. We felt this way was better. 

"We hoped Paddy McNair (who started in the midfield diamond) would give us a bit more physicality and size in the middle of the pitch, but with 3-5-2, when you are defending, it is always five at the back - that's the reality. If you are not defending it's three at the back and when you are it's five."

That fascinating insight into O'Neill's thinking aside, ultimately the players admitted they were nowhere near at their best at the weekend.

O'Neill added: "You have to remember this is a massive step up for some of our players and having the belief to come on to this stage and play against these levels of players is an individual thing.

"We can try and give it to them tactically and on the training pitch but when you step out on to the pitch you never know as a manager how a player will react to that and for many of them it was the biggest international game of their career and the biggest game of their career.

"Now that they have got that behind them I hope the belief will be stronger going into the Ukraine game.

"As I said before the tournament having been group winners and being 12 games unbeaten we couldn't have been going into the tournament in a better place mentally but, as I also said before the tournament, we would have to run faster, play better, raise our level of performance another level from qualification and be able to compete and do well in this tournament and that's what the boys will be aspiring to do on Thursday night."

After the game with Poland, skipper Davis suggested that there was not enough belief in the side. Quizzed further on that point, O'Neill said: "You see that individually.

"I don't think we lost it as a team but individually in terms of the decisions players made on the ball there was almost an acceptance that I'm going to give the ball away here or I won't retain the ball and that's where we have to be stronger individually."

On what he expects from Ukraine, who lost their first game against Germany 2-0, O'Neill said: "It is a different challenge. The threat from Ukraine is prominently coming in from wide areas. They have players who are on the radar of the biggest teams in Europe and we have to recognise that.

"Ukraine put a lot into the Germany game, but they will look at this game and think if we beat Northern Ireland and Germany defeat Poland a win against Poland in their last game would take them through."

Ahead of tonight's enncounter the Ukrainians have had to respond to claims from German newspaper Bild that their players drank beer and smoked cigarettes in the changing rooms after their defeat to the World Champions.

Ukraine defender Artem Fedetskiy said: "We are a normal team. We have no players who drink beer. I think the information is wrong.

"Maybe someone wants to provoke us. We behave in a civilised way. You can check the DNA from the cigarettes!"

Whether the claims get under the skin of the Ukraine team remains to be seen. Regardless Northern Ireland's players must step up and play the way they can all over the pitch.

They will do so wearing black armbands in tribute to young Northern Ireland supporter Darren Rodgers who died in Nice earlier this week.

There will be no minute's silence before the game, under Uefa orders, but Northern Ireland fans will hold a minute's applause in the 24th minute for the Ballymena man.

This is it for Northern Ireland. Tonight's the night to show the world what they are all about.

No regrets.

Belfast Telegraph