Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland not going down without a fight, says Jonny Evans

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans admits that Thursday night's Group C encounter against Ukraine has turned into a Euro 2016 make-or-break clash for Michael O'Neill's side.

And following Sunday's disappointing 1-0 defeat to Poland, the West Bromwich Albion star has called on the players to show the famed fighting spirit that got them to France in the first place.

On occasions during qualifying, Northern Ireland were in difficult situations, but found a way to move forward and reach the promised land of big tournament football.

Evans says Northern Ireland must repeat the trick in Lyon later this week to have any chance of making the last 16, knowing that trying to beat world champions Germany in their final group game may prove mission impossible.

The former Manchester United defender said: "There were times in the qualifying campaign when things looked to be slipping away from us and we managed to produce something.

"I still think we can do that here in France. We'll watch the Poland game and see what we can do better and I think you'll definitely see an improved performance on Thursday night."

Evans felt that Poland's dominance of possession and terrority made Sunday's clash in Nice an exhausting exercise for O'Neill's men, claiming that at times the players were almost feeling 'dizzy' as they attempted to chase down their opponents in stifling heat.

"I think at half-time we realised the amount of work we were putting in and we were like, 'Don't let this pass us by'," said Evans.

"Footballers will always run themselves into the ground and we know as a team we have to work hard. It can be quite disheartening when you run your socks off and don't take anything from the game.

"We don't see it in the Premier League a lot but European teams are very good at controlling the game.

"You could see with Poland how they could control and what a great understanding they had of the game. They knew when to play possession football and they knew when to attack.

"They were 1-0 up and made us run and took the game away from us by doing it.

"Your legs are heavy, you're exhausted and when you do get the ball back it's very difficult then to produce that bit of quality because you're almost dizzy. They're not afraid to keep the ball and make you work hard to get it back.

"There were times in the first half where they had a lot of possession and I thought we defended quite well but on the flip side we found it hard to get out.

"We had a lot of men behind the ball. I think we'll learn from the fact that maybe at times we need to try and play a bit more - we rushed things a bit. Especially in that heat, and against that quality of opposition, you know if you keep giving the ball back to them that it's going to be a long night.

"It would have been great to have taken something from the Poland game. Now we know we can't lose our next one, especially with going to Paris against Germany in the last game who are going to dominate the game better than anyone.

"So it might be a make-or-break for us against Ukraine on Thursday night and hopefully it makes for a good game. We'll try to stamp our authority more on the match when we play Ukraine.

"The loss to Poland has put us in a position now that we have to maybe go for it."

With that in mind, expect O'Neill's tactics to be more positive against Ukraine.

There was a sense that the manager with so many defensive players in his side was playing for the draw against Poland.

That is unlikely to be enough on Thursday night.

If O'Neill reverts to the 4-3-3 formation which was so successful during the qualifying campaign Evans says he will happily play at left-back.

"Michael said to me before the tournament started that he might need me to play left back and I told him that wouldn't be an issue," revealed Evans, who won his 50th cap against Poland.

"I've played there for West Brom this season. Shane Ferguson, who I thought played well in the Poland game, is another who can step in there so the manager has a few different options to try.

"Michael hinted leading up to the games that we might try different things against different teams, especially Ukraine who are very good from the wide areas."

Evans does not necessarily feel having two strikers will be the key factor against Ukraine but pointed out that it was important Northern Ireland utilise the strengths of the side's most influential star, captain Steven Davis.

He said: "We have to try to get Steven in the game more. They made it very difficult for us to get on the ball and as soon as we played a pass they were right on top of us and made it difficult for us and Steven to get in the game.

"He's one of our best players and there were times in the second half when he dropped in and tried to get on the ball and dictate it a bit more and that's something we need to try to do."

Belfast Telegraph