Northern Ireland enjoy Euro 2016 win over Ukraine

Lyon (AFP) – Veteran Gareth McAuley and substitute Niall McGinn netted as Northern Ireland shocked Ukraine 2-0 at Euro 2016 on Thursday to keep alive their hopes of reaching the knockout phase.

A flying header from West Bromwich Albion defender McAuley and McGinn’s injury-time strike at a hailstone-battered Stade de Lyon gave Ireland their first win at a European Championship finals.

Michael O’Neill’s side produced the perfect reaction to losing their Group C opener 1-0 to Poland, giving them everything to play for against world champions Germany in next Tuesday’s final group game.

“It’s special. It’ll sink in probably over the next few days,” said McAuley.

“It was the team performance that was pleasing tonight, it was the reaction from getting beaten against Poland.

“We’ve got a tough game to look forward to now and we’ve got something to play for, that’s what we wanted.”

McAuley also wrote himself into the history books.

At 36 years and 194 days, he is the second oldest goalscorer at a Euro finals, after Ivica Vastic, who was two years, 63 days older when he converted a penalty for Austria against Poland at Euro 2008.

The victory is just desserts for O’Neill.

The Northern Irish manager made five changes from his starting line-up after his side had failed to impose themselves on Poland, including dropping top scorer Kyle Lafferty.

O’Neill preferred to start QPR’s Conor Washington as striker instead of Norwich City’s Lafferty who had netted seven goals in qualifying to help the Irish reach the finals.

Ukraine coach Mykhailo Fomenko kept faith with the majority of the side which lost 2-0 to Germany last Sunday.

– Interrupted match –

It was an impressive display from Northern Ireland, who fought their way back into the game.

They had struggled for first-half possession — winning just 35 percent in the first 45 minutes.

And the first clear chance for either side came with half an hour gone when Irish centre-back Craig Cathcart headed over.

Mother Nature played her part as the heavens opened over Lyon for the start of the second-half.

It did little to hinder McAuley’s diving header from looping over Ukraine goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov in a torrential downpour after a brilliant cross from Oliver Norwood on 49 minutes.

It was McAuley’s eighth international goal and none will be toasted more back home.

The greasy ball was nearly in the Irish net minutes later as their goalkeeper Michael McGovern blocked half-chances from Taras Stepanenko, then Yevhen Konoplyanka.

Both teams struggled in the sodden conditions as a hailstorm then battered the pitch and on 58 minutes Czech referee Pavel Kralovec halted the game.

The players were back out three minutes later and Ukraine fought for the equaliser as Viktor Kovalenko fired wide of McGovern with 20 minutes left.

Ukraine peppered their opponents’ goal with long-range shots before McGinn slammed in just before the end to wrap up a famous win.

The Green Army will now make their way to Paris’ Parc de Princes buoyed to face Joachim Loew’s Germany.

2012 co-hosts Ukraine must beat Poland in Marseille next Tuesday, and hope the Irish lose heavily to Germany, to have any chance of progressing as one of the best four third-placed teams.

“It’s clear that it was a do-or-die game and it seems clear that we’re out of the tournament,” said Stepanenko glumly.

“The last game is not going to have any special value for the tournament, just for the prestige.”

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