Northern Ireland secured a vital win at the Stade des Lumières to keep their slim hopes of progressing to the knock out stages of Euro 2016 alive, with an incredible 2-0 win over Ukraine.
Michael O’Neill’s are considered dangerous from set pieces, having scoring nine – and the most of any nation – in qualifying, and it was no surprise to see Northern Ireland grab their first goal of the tournament through a set piece.
A brilliant delivery from Oliver Norwood, swung in from the left flank, was met by the head of West Brom centre-back Gareth McAuley from about eight yards out, the experienced defender used his strength to hold off his marker and thump the ball past Andriy Pyatov, giving Northern Ireland a 1-0 lead.
Gareth McAuley’s eight international goals have all come from set pieces and his opener against Ukraine is Northern Ireland’s first tournament goal since Colin Clarke’s in the 2-1 defeat by Spain in the 1986 World Cup.
Northern Ireland sealed the famous victory in style, with Josh Magennis dancing into space on the right, keeping his composure to pull the ball back to Stuart Dallas. His curling shot was blocked by Andriy Pyatov, but the Ukraine keeper was powerless to stop former Celtic winger Niall McGinn sliding in the second.
McGinn became the second former League of Ireland player to score at this year’s tournament after Wes Hoolahan’s goal for Ireland on Monday.
Northern Ireland entered the European Championships in superb form, with an unbeaten run of 12 games the longest unbeaten run of all 24 sides participating. However the Ulstermen fell to a 1-0 defeat to Poland in their opening game on Sunday.
After Michael O’Neill’s team lost their Group C opener to Poland, the manager made five changes and his side produced a much more positive display with Ukraine’s key men Yarmalenko, Konoplyanka and Kovalenko having been almost anonymous throughout the match.
Gareth McAuley spoke to ITV after the game:
“We’re delighted for everyone and these supporters. It’ll sink in over the next few days, but the team performance was pleasing tonight. We’ve got a tough game to look forward to, but we’ve got something to play for and that’s what we wanted. We let ourselves down against Poland but we put it right.”
Northern Ireland’s first tournament win, since defeating Spain in 1982 means the Nation can finish no lower than third in their group, and a draw in their final game will surely be enough to see them progress.
Their final game in Group C, will be against the world champions Germany, and it will be tough for Michael O’Neill’s side to pick up a result. Although with four third-place teams progressing to the next round, the win and the two-goal margin could already be enough to reach the last 16, depending on how other results go.
Regardless of future outcomes, this afternoon’s match will linger long in the memory of every Northern Irish fan.