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

O’Neill backs his boys to land knockout blow on Ukraine

By Steven Beacom

Published 16/06/2016

Time to deliver: Michael O’Neill talks tactics with his skipper Steven Davis
Time to deliver: Michael O’Neill talks tactics with his skipper Steven Davis

Michael O’Neill is confident that Northern Ireland will be Kings of Lyon in tonight’s ‘make or break’ Euro 2016 clash against Ukraine (5.00pm).

The Northern Ireland boss says that following Sunday’s disappointing 1-0 defeat to Poland in Nice, and with World Champions Germany to come in the final Group C showdown, his side must overcome Ukraine to keep their hopes alive in the tournament.

With both nations entering the fixture on zero points — Ukraine lost 2-0 to Germany in their opening match — O’Neill has labelled the game as ‘a cup final’ and insisted his team will shine in the biggest game of their lives. “I’m confident that we can go and win the game,” said O’Neill, who will adopt a more attacking approach than against Poland.

“With the nature of the tournament and playing the World Champions in our last group game you have to think that it is make or break.

“When you are a small nation like us it is essentially three cup finals you are playing.

“We lost the first one, so now we have to address that.

“For us to take something out of the game and win we will have to play the game of our lives and be at our best.”

Among the many Northern Ireland fans here, the main topic of conversation is the system O'Neill will use and the players he will start with.

There is a feeling inside the camp that he will go with a 3-5-2 formation. The side is likely to be Michael McGovern in goal, Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans in defence and Paddy McNair and Stuart Dallas in wing-back roles. Chris Baird will anchor a midfield containing captain Steven Davis and Oliver Norwood with Kyle Lafferty up front with either Conor Washington or Jamie Ward. If he opts for 4-3-3 expect the same personnel.

"We always try and take something out of the game from whatever level of possession we have but we have to recognise the level of the opposition we are playing against," said O'Neill.

Belfast Telegraph Sports Editor Steven Beacom's Euro 2016 diary: Friday, June 24. McGovern is the number one as he mixes it with Europe's best. Fair play to Germany's Toni Kroos, Spain's Andres Iniesta, Welshman Gareth Bale and France's Dimitri've finally made it! They are in the Euro 2016 best XI relating to Opta Stats from the group stages along with Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern who is having a fantastic tournament.
Hey Toni and the others, that's what you call keeping good company.
Belfast Telegraph Sports Editor Steven Beacom's Euro 2016 diary: Friday, June 24. McGovern is the number one as he mixes it with Europe's best. Fair play to Germany's Toni Kroos, Spain's Andres Iniesta, Welshman Gareth Bale and France's Dimitri've finally made it! They are in the Euro 2016 best XI relating to Opta Stats from the group stages along with Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern who is having a fantastic tournament. Hey Toni and the others, that's what you call keeping good company.
Legend Jennings gives a big hand to NI's newest goalkeeping hero. The accolades are rolling in for Michael McGovern. And yesterday came congratulations from Northern Ireland goalkeeping great Pat Jennings (left). In an interview ahead of Saturday's game with Wales, BBC presenter Joel Taggart phoned big Pat to speak to Michael. Jennings was full of praise for the Enniskillen man who was genuinely touched by his comments.
Irish FA chief Patrick also living the dream and thirsty for more. Irish Football Association Chief Executive Patrick Nelson tells me he has been working 38 years in different industries, but says nothing quite compares to his Euro 2016 experiences. Just like the players, Nelson (right) is loving being part of the tournament in France. "It is fantastic. Our team are doing us proud and so are the Northern Ireland fans. I would rate my experience as 10 and a half out of 10 so far," said a beaming Nelson.
Belfast Telegraph Sports Editor Steven Beacom's Euro 2016 diary: Thursday, June 23. The German players showed real class after their 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland. Bastian Schweinsteiger hailed the atmosphere created by the Green and White Army and had his picture taken with striker Will Grigg, who swapped shirts with Mats Hummels after the big defender sought him out. It would be great to meet the world champions again - in the final.
Assistant boss Stephen chills out with a little Country and Western. Away from the pressure of the matches at the Euro 2016 tournament, the Northern Ireland squad have different ways of relaxing. The players indulge in games of pool, darts and table tennis and then there's assistant manager Stephen Robinson, who apparently loves nothing better than watching American TV drama Nashville, which is all about the country 'n' western music industry.
Medium predicts a NI v Belgium final in Paris. Former Killyleagh manager Dee Heron is feeling lucky in France. He went to see a medium who told him the Euro 2016 final next month would be between Northern Ireland and Belgium, adding that fortune would shine on him. A few minutes later he found €10 lying in the street. Word has it that Dee wagered his new found wealth on the medium's bold prediction.
Belfast Telegraph Sports Editor Steven Beacom's Euro 2016 diary: Wednesday, June 22: Jubilant fans a Tower of strength as Parisians look on in admiration. Paris had never seen anything like it. Thousands of Northern Ireland supporters (right) congregated around the Eiffel Tower yesterday and then walked to the Parc des Princes stadium singing every step of the way. It was a Sea of Green to behold with the locals looking on in awe and admiration. Northern Ireland fans have certainly left a good impression on the Parisians.
Former stars enjoy a laugh and a joke at media centre rendezvous. With Northern Ireland in France, there have been many more of our ex-internationals here than in previous tournaments, doing television and radio work. In the Parc des Princes media centre yesterday before the game with Germany there was a cool moment when pundits Norman Whiteside, Iain Dowie and Keith Gillespie all met up and enjoyed a long chat and a few laughs.
Eamonn's lovely touch to let UTV's Ruth know she's doing a great job. UTV presenter Ruth Gorman is doubling up and working for ITN in France at the Euro 2016 finals and doing an excellent job. So much so that Sky News and This Morning host Eamonn Holmes sent a lovely message to Ruth (right) to tell her how well she was performing. Nice touch. Ironically Eamonn cut his teeth for ITN during the 1982 World Cup finals when Northern Ireland were producing heroics in Spain.
Proud Ulsterman has prepared the pitch for tonight's big game. Jonathan Calderwood will be one proud Northern Ireland man tonight. The Clough native is the head groundsman of the Parc des Princes stadium and can't wait to see his national side take on world champions Germany on his pitch. Jonathan started out at Glentoran and has worked at Wembley, Wolves and Aston Villa making a big name for himself before moving to Paris St Germain.
Kyle makes Zak's day after getting ticket for game against Ukraine. What a lovely gesture from Kyle Lafferty who got in touch with 10-year-old Northern Ireland fan Zak McGall (right) after seeing his joyous reaction online to being given tickets by his dad Richard for the Euro 2016 win over Ukraine. Lafferty arranged a Facetime call to Zak and, along with captain Steven Davis, Aaron Hughes and Josh Magennis, wished the Ballymena boy a happy birthday.
McIlroy and Ulster Rugby heroes flying in to cheer on O'Neill's men. Rory McIlroy will be attending tonight's match between Northern Ireland and Germany in Paris...and he won't be the only famous sportsman from back home cheering on Michael O'Neill's men in the French capital. Current Ulster Rugby star Darren Cave, a big Blackburn Rovers fan, will be in attendance as will ex-Ulster aces Paddy Wallace and David Humphreys, who is bringing his son James along too. It's a match everyone wants to see.
Belfast Telegraph Sports Editor Steven Beacom's Euro 2016 diary, Monday, June 20: Coagh old boy Dallas insists he's a man for all seasons in France. Stuart Dallas will happily play in rain, hail or shine. That's why he was so surprised when the players were taken off in Northern Ireland's game with Poland in Lyon due to hailstones. "They wouldn't have brought us off for that when I was playing for Coagh," said Dallas, not forgetting his roots. He hopes to play 90 minutes straight against Germany tomorrow whatever the weather!
Josh hits a high note as he tunes up for clash with world champs. The Northern Ireland players are doing numerous interviews out here in France. The Cool FM team of Pete Snodden, Paolo Ross and Rebecca McKinney (left) like to take things away from the norm when talking to the boys. Josh Magennis certainly enjoyed doing a duet of Sweet Caroline with Rebecca. Whether it moves above 'Will Grigg's on fire' in the charts remains to be seen.
It all comes out in the wash for Jim and his team of scouts. Following the further adventures of Jim Magilton (right), who has been travelling around France on scouting missions for Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill. At the weekend his clothes and those of fellow IFA Euro 2016 scouts Stephen Craigan and Andy Cousins were locked overnight in a local laundry after they didn't realise the closing time. After much laughter and then concern, the trio got their clean clothes back the next day.
Friday, June 17: It was a joyous sight watching all the Northern Ireland players walking through the interview area after their marvellous 2-0 victory over Ukraine. All of them wore the biggest smiles. Not least Oliver Norwood  whose brilliant free-kick set up Gareth McAuley's opener. "What an emotional night that was," said Norwood, capturing the mood perfectly.
No cold feet from Jimmy as he joins the fans and loves a selfie. Jimmy Nesbitt is fast becoming the most photographed man from Northern Ireland. And the great thing about Jimmy is he never gets cold feet about been asked to pose for a picture. The actor was in Nice for the Poland game and  yesterday turned up in Lyon for the Ukraine match. Everywhere the Coleraine supporter went he was stopped by fans for a selfie ... with a smile.
It’s brothers in arms with Jonny and Corry united on the big stage. History was made in Stade de Lyon last night when Jonny and Corry Evans became the first Northern Ireland brothers to play together in the finals of a major tournament. What a moment for the Evans boys when they walked out to face Ukraine at the Euro 2016 finals and what an emotional experience for parents Jackie and Dawn. They were, as you would expect, as proud as punch of their sons.
Thursday, June 16: German media already fired up by Grigg before Paris showdown. So, which Northern Ireland footballer is getting lots of coverage in the German media? Could it be captain Steven Davis, striker Kyle Lafferty or defender Jonny Evans? No the answer is Will Grigg (left), who is yet to play in the Euro 2016 tournament. It's all down to the by now famous song 'Will Grigg's on fire' which apparently the Germans have taken to their hearts.
Manager makes light of captain's moment of history against Poles. Amid the seriousness of preparation for tonight's match with Ukraine there was a funny moment at yesterday's press conference involving Michael O'Neill (right) and Steven Davis. After Davis was asked about making history against Poland in Nice by taking a one man kick-off, courtesy of new rules, manager O'Neill chipped in: "We hope it's not the highlight of our tournament!"
Arnason makes a big point and leaves Ronaldo the sore loser. Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo did himself no favours by saying Iceland showed no ambition and had a 'small mentality' after Tuesday's 1-1 draw in Group F. Iceland's Kari Arnason spoke for just about everyone here when he labelled the Real Madrid striker 'a sore loser'. Ronaldo didn't actually finish a loser but we all got Kari's point. Arnason added: "It's petty. He didn't fancy it on the day."
Wednesday, June 15 Magilton's on a tour de France, but it's definitely not a holiday. If you want to know about France, the man to ask is Jim Magilton. The former Northern Ireland midfielder and current Irish FA Elite Performance director is touring all around the country during Euro 2016. He's not on holiday you understand, but scouting the teams at the tournament for manager Michael O'Neill. Word has it Jim is loving the gig.
Support from Stormont is now a Givan. For Northern Ireland’s opening Euro 2016 game against Poland, First Minister Arlene Foster was cheering on Michael O’Neill’s men. And for the final group match in Paris, when world champions Germany are the opposition, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness will be in attendance. Stormont will also  be represented tomorrow with Sports Minister Paul Givan in Lyon  for the Ukraine match.
IFA try to work out if we could benefit from Russian roulette. When Uefa announced that Russia would be thrown out of Euro 2016 if their fans caused further trouble there was much discussion amongst IFA officials. President Jim Shaw (centre) and Chief Executive Patrick Nelson debated with me how any expulsion would impact on other teams/groups in the tournament. And looking ahead what it would mean for Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup finals
Tuesday, June 14. World champion boxer Carl Frampton and renowned actor Jimmy Nesbitt were in good company at Northern Ireland's first ever European Championship match on Sunday. The two Ulstermen may have been disappointed with their country losing 1-0 to Poland, but at least had the consolation of having a chat with former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson at Stade de Nice.
Tuesday, June 14. Ginola back on the box and fighting fit after heart operation. It was just last month that David Ginola had a quadruple heart bypass operation. The good news is the former Newcastle and Spurs winger has recovered quickly. The 49-year-old is one of the star presenters on French television for Euro 2016. Ratings are high whenever Ginola is on the box and in case you are wondering he is looking as slick as ever.
International legends can talk as well as they played the game Gerry Armstrong is well known for his work on Sky Sports. He is here at the Euro 2016 finals as the BBC television's expert summariser with Neil Lennon in the studio alongside host Gary Lineker. Belfast Telegraph columnist Norman Whiteside will fill that role for ITV with Iain Dowie acting as co-commentator. All can talk for Northern Ireland as well as they played.
Monday, June 13. King Kenny's special message is well received from biggest fan. Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill received many good luck messages from all around the sporting world ahead of the match against Poland. He appreciated them all, though one in particular struck a special chord as it came from his childhood hero Kenny Dalglish. O'Neill was a massive Liverpool fan as a kid and idolised the man he calls 'King Kenny'.
Monday, June 13. Boys in blue are members of the Green and White Army in France. A host of Irish League players past and present were in Nice yesterday to cheer on Northern Ireland against Poland. Former Linfield stars William Murphy (left), Stuart King, Stephen Douglas and current Windsor Park hero Jamie Mulgrew were among those who made the trip. They will be at all of Northern Ireland's group games, so it is next stop Lyon for Thursday's match with Ukraine.
Monday, June 13. Glentoran legend Cleary back on big stage as supporter in Nice. No Irish League players made Michael O'Neill's 23-man panel for the Euro 2016 finals. Linfield's Paul Smyth and Glenavon's Joel Cooper, however, are training with the squad. For the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain Billy Bingham took four Irish League aces, one of which was Glentoran great Jim Cleary. He was in Nice last night for the game, looking as if he could still play for his country if called upon!
Saturday, June 11. Michael keeps bodyguard on his toes with energetic workouts Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill  likes to keep himself fit and healthy and enjoys getting out for a run while on international duty. He's a busy man preparing tactics for the upcoming Euro 2016 clash with Poland but wisely still makes time for a jog to clear his head. Security is so tight here in France though that when he has an energetic workout on the roads near the team base he is joined by a bodyguard.
Saturday, June 11. Hard to keep track of the trains but always a Nice alternative The train strikes here are playing havoc with Euro 2016 travel plans, both for fans and media. Many of us based in Lyon were due on the 7am train to Nice today, but when that was cancelled alternative arrangements had to be made. Kyle Lafferty's new wife Vanessa and her parents travelled yesterday to Nice with the BBC and your correspondent got a lift with UTV'S Ruth Gorman this morning.
Saturday, June 11. All eyes were on Kyle Lafferty at training yesterday to see if he really was fit enough to play against Poland tomorrow. No problem there. After injury worries earlier in the week all was fine. He even pretended he was a horse at one stage. "That's Kyle. He keeps us entertained," said team-mate Gareth McAuley. Here's to a thoroughbred display against the Poles.
Friday, June 10 Le Journal informed you yesterday that Rory McIlroy is hoping to make it to Northern Ireland's game with Germany. Another big fan, Carl Frampton (left) is planning to take a short break from preparations for his world title fight against Leo Santa Cruz in July in New York to cheer on Michael O'Neill's men at the Poland game on Sunday.
The Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs want the fans to create a 'Sea of Green' in Nice for Sunday's opening Euro match with Poland. They will distribute 8,000 flags and will organise face painting at the Northern Ireland fans' Embassy at Brasserie des Ponchettes 3, Place Charles Felix in the Cours Saleya area. Get along, go green and enjoy the fun.
Friday, June 10 Radio 5 Live and Radio Ulster are joining forces for Northern Ireland's opening Group C clash against Poland in Nice. Joel Taggart will provide commentary for both stations from the stadium with Gerry Taggart acting as summariser. Radio Ulster will then have a post-match fans phone in, hosted by Michael McNamee with special guest John O'Neill, who played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups.
Thursday, June 9 Rory McIlroy is hoping to be in Paris to cheer on Northern Ireland against Germany on June 21. The four-time Major champion was at Windsor Park last October when Michael O'Neill's men qualified and he would love to join the party in France. McIlroy met all the players in Dublin at a training camp the day after he won the Irish Open, a gesture much appreciated by O'Neill.
It's taken a few days, but finally the security question popped up at a Northern Ireland press conference yesterday. On hand to answer it was Craig Cathcart, who likes to keep a tight defence himself. "The security we've had has been fantastic, we haven't had to wait around anywhere, we get to where we need to be. As long as we're all safe, that's all we want. They've done a great job so far," he said.
Some Northern Ireland supporters received surprise calls yesterday from the team hotel. Captain Steven Davis, Aaron Hughes, Josh Magennis and assistant manager Jimmy Nicholl all phoned up fans to thank them for their support and wish them well on their journey to France. Not a bad conversation starter. “Here, you’ll never guess who rang me  last night?
Wednesday, June 8 The Northern Ireland team were in grand surroundings last night, eating dinner in the Michelin Star Castle at Chateau de Bagnols in the heart of the vineyards of Beaujolais near Lyon. Apparently the Castle is a favourite spot of Hollywood movie star Tom Cruise, who has also stayed in the team’s hotel. Wonder if he thinks it is mission impossible for our boys to get out of their group?
Wednesday, June 8 Sylvie Epinat made speeches at Chateau de Bagnols last night. Mayor Epinat told Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill and his players that she hoped they would go all the way to the Euro 2016 final and meet hosts France in the decider. On the menu for dinner was Amuse-bouche, salmon and veal.
Wednesday, June 8 At the Euro 2016 finals, Uefa have designated a television reporter to follow each team. For Northern Ireland it is former Sky Sports and UTV presenter Graham Little, who once took Kyle Lafferty for a training session back in their native Fermanagh. Northern Ireland based journalist Laure James is Uefa’s England reporter and has already enjoyed interviewing captain Wayne Rooney.
Tuesday, June 7 The Northern Ireland players had their first training session in France yesterday at the picturesque Saint-Georges-de-Reneins. It’s a cracking spot, 40 minutes from Lyon, with a carpet of a pitch and high class facilities. Manager Michael O’Neill (right) joked: “It’s a bit different from Chimney Corner!” which was one of his first training bases as a Northern Ireland player.
Tuesday, June 7 It’s all in the name as French journalists are already baffled At the Northern Ireland media centre, beside the team’s training pitch, a set of images show how all six counties are represented in the squad. In the frame are Steven Davis (Antrim), Luke McCullough (Armagh), Josh Magennis (Down), Stuart Dallas (Tyrone), Michael McGovern (Fermanagh) and Shane Ferguson (Derry/Londonderry). A French journalist asked me why Shane (left) had two counties!
Northern Ireland's captain Steven Davis (L) and coach Michael O'Neill (L) attend a training session while water spray at their training ground in Saint George de Reneins on June 6, 2016 during the Euro 2016 football tournament. / AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE DESMAZESPHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
Tuesday, June 7 Tourist Board making sure the media centre is picture perfect The press conference room in the media centre has been paid for by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. An IFA source said the Association is receiving an estimated £25,000. In and just outside the room are pictures of notable landmarks including the Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (right). Let’s hope Northern Ireland’s defence isn’t as shaky as that!
Monday, June 6 Home from home for O’Neill and his team... flags are out already The Northern Ireland players spotted a familiar sight last night on their way to their base for the next few weeks. Entering the small village of Pizay outside Lyon, where Michael O’Neill (right) and his team are staying, was a Northern Ireland flag fluttering in the breeze. Pizay is renowned for its vineyards but wine is off the menu for the players until they reach the knockout stages!
Monday, June 6 Magennis is in a sweat as Aaron rouses the troops after milestone To mark his 100th Northern Ireland cap, Aaron Hughes was asked to give a speech in the dressing room in Slovakia on Saturday night. Some players suggested Josh Magennis got so emotional that he was wiping away tears following Aaron’s address. Magennis revealed: “The boys were thinking I was crying after his speech but it was just sweat. I did give him a hug and a kiss and said ‘congratulations’”.
Monday, June 6 Stuart Dallas is on cloud nine right now. It’s like all his Christmases have come at once... and in a way they have. The Leeds star got married to childhood sweetheart Juneve on Friday and flew into France last night with the Northern Ireland squad for Euro 2016. You could say he is in the honeymoon period of life which bodes well for the matches ahead.

"We won't go and control 60% possession and we couldn't go and play 4-4-2. That would be ludicrous for us because the quality of our defensive shape is what keeps us in the game.

"In terms of personnel that we choose we could be more adventurous. Is it a more defensive player or more attacking player in certain areas of the pitch? And that's what we will be looking at for the game against Ukraine."

In yesterday's press conference, O'Neill was asked about comments from Ukraine player Ruslan Rotan, who had said Northern Ireland played a 'purely British style with great physical preparation'.

O'Neill bristled with the type of fight he will expect from his players tonight, saying: "It's interesting that statement was made. I looked at the statistics in the game (against Germany) and Ukraine's possession was not particularly high. They also played a lot of long balls, which is very British.

"One thing we've noticed about the Ukranian team is they are a physical team.

"If you look at yellow and red cards the Ukranians have gained through qualification, I don't think they are playing a Spanish style of football.

"We expect a tough game physically but also a highly technical game. What we have been impressed with is their level of competitiveness and physicality."

Davis stated that he felt Northern Ireland would find a better balance tonight than they did against Poland and would stamp their authority more.

He may be on international duty, but was still asked about his club manager at Southampton, Ronald Koeman, moving to take charge of Everton. The Saints are getting used to it now after Mauricio Pochettino left for Spurs in 2014.

Davis said: "Obviously disappointed, but I think as a club we're in a strong position, coming off a record-breaking season. We qualified for Europe and are well equipped like we were a couple of years ago."

Belfast Telegraph

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