Belfast Telegraph

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

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.

"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