Lyon (AFP) – Michael O’Neill has told his Northern Ireland team to focus on playing “ugly” in what he dubbed their “cup final” against Ukraine at Euro 2016 on Thursday.
The Irish team’s 12-match unbeaten run ended on Sunday with a 1-0 defeat to Poland in their first match at the European Championship finals.
Now the Northern Irish must beat Ukraine to realistically keep alive hopes of reaching the knock-out stage, especially with world champions Germany yet to come in their final Group C game next Tuesday.
“We must bring the ugly side to our game tomorrow night and be more competitive,” O’Neill said.
The team must match the physicality of Ukraine, who also need a win at the Stade de Lyon having lost their opening game 2-0 to Germany in Lille.
The Northern Irish manager said his team needs to show some grit to contain Ukraine’s talented wingers Andriy Yarmolenko of Dynamo Kiev and Sevilla’s Yevhen Konoplyanka.
But O’Neill wants his side to focus on the “ugly” side of their game, mark their opponents tightly, win the one-on-ones and be aggressive — within the rules.
“We know of the threat of Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka and the stats (from the Germany game) tell you everything you need to know,” said O’Neill.
“The Ukrainians won 12 corners, which showed they had a lot of territory.
“They were a threat at set-pieces, they always looked capable and had chances.
“What we have to do is be prepared to match the physicality.
“What we didn’t do well against Poland was in the ugly part of our game, that’s generally something we normally do well.
“We must bring the ugly side to our game tomorrow night.
“I don’t mean ‘out with the rules’, I mean in our levels of competitiveness, because what we have seen up until now is that every game (at Euro 2016) has been extremely competitive.”
But O’Neill is under no illusion of what is at stake — defeat would effectively send the Irish home before the knock-out stages.
“We have to treat this like a cup final, because we know the significance of the three points,” he said.
“Our goal remains to go into the last game with something to play for, hopefully Germany will have six points by then and maybe be looking ahead to future tasks.”
Ukraine assistant coach Andriy Shevchenko has described Northern Ireland as a “typically British” side — with a “great fighting spirit”, who “like set-pieces, defensive organisation and counterattacks”.
But O’Neill said the Ukraine team are not dissimilar.
“Ukraine’s possession figures are not particularly high and they played a lot of long balls, which is very British,” said the Northern Ireland boss.
“They’re a physical team.
“I think if you look at the yellow and red cards they have had through qualification, they haven’t exactly been playing a Spanish style of football, but we have been impressed with their competitiveness and physicality.
“We’ll have to be at our very, very best to win and be better in a lot of aspects.”
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