There was a palpable sense of disappointment emanating from the Northern Ireland camp following defeat to Poland in their opening match of Euro 2016, with regrets aplenty over their lack of any kind of goal threat. The following outing against Ukraine became absolutely crucial.
Manager Michael O’Neill responded in bold fashion by making five changes including the decision to drop leading striker Kyle Lafferty, and that move could not have paid off any better as a deserved 2-0 victory gave them a fighting chance of qualifying for the last 16.
Once again difficult to break down at the back, Northern Ireland found some fluency going forward and used their height advantage in the best possible way, going ahead early in the second half. The clincher arrived deep into added time as Niall McGinn pounced on a rebound after Stuart Dallas’ shot was saved.
In their final Group C encounter they come up against the might of world champions Germany, where they will be massive underdogs. A point should be enough to go through, while defeat would not be the end of the world unless it is not by such a heavy margin that their goal difference becomes too inferior.
Taking something from this match is not totally beyond the realms of possibility, as Germany are yet to really hit the heights in Euro 2016 and have occasionally looked vulnerable against weaker opposition. Their turgid display against Poland did little to suggest that the current ploy of playing without a recognised striker is paying off.
One look at the statistics would have suggested that Joachim Low’s team were superior at the Stade de France, but it was the Poles who created the better openings and looked more likely to break the deadlock, with Jerome Boateng needing to produce a man of the match performance at centre-back to keep his side level.
Germany will still want to top the group, but Poland will feel that they still have a chance of doing so as they take on fellow Euro 2012 co-hosts Ukraine, who in losing to Northern Ireland became the first side to be knocked out of the competition.
They are a side that for whatever reason have found the going tough, with only a decent first half showing against Germany to look back on with any real fondness. Their two dangerous wingers have largely been kept quiet, and in midfield they have been overrun, so they come into this one merely playing for pride and looking to avoid finishing their campaign without any points.
As for Poland, observers are still waiting for striker Robert Lewandowski to come alive and start showing the kind of deadly form he has become renowned for at club level. The man in the thick of the action so far has been Arkadiusz Milik, who after scoring the winner against Northern Ireland had a disappointing night in front of goal against Germany.
Led by the calm and collected Adam Newalka, Poland will be expecting their goals tally to increase fairly soon as they progress through the tournament. Should they, as expected, finish in second place, Switzerland will lie in wait in the next round.
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