Lyon (AFP) – Michael O’Neill hailed Northern Ireland’s 2-0 win over Ukraine on Thursday as the proudest moment of his career with his side still in contention in Group C at Euro 2016.
A flying header from defender Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn’s injury-time strike in Lyon means Ireland have everything to play for against world champions Germany in Tuesday’s final Group C game.
“We have given ourselves a great chance of qualifying,” beamed Northern Ireland’s manager O’Neill.
“There are still a lot of ramifications in this group, but we wanted to go into the last game with something realistic to play for.
“Now we have the chance of a realistic prize against Germany and that is immensely pleasing.”
O’Neill’s side produced the perfect reaction to losing their Euro 2016 opener 1-0 to Poland last Sunday.
“The players were down for longer than I wanted after the Poland game, but they got right up for it today,” added the 46-year-old.
“I told them in the dressing room (after the game), that was the proudest I have been in the dug out in my career.
“When you get a performance like that, with so much passion and commitment, you can’t ask for more.”
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O’Neill gambled by switching formation, and changing half of his starting line-up from the Poland defeat, to neutralise the threat of Ukraine’s wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka.
O’Neill took the bold decision to leave out top scorer Kyle Lafferty, who netted seven goals in qualifiers, for QPR striker Conor Washington.
“It’s never easy changing half your team and the lads who we left out hadn’t left me down, but those tough decisions had to be made,” said O’Neill.
“(Lafferty) wasn’t dropped, he has played four games of club football this season and I knew I couldn’t expect 90 minutes from him in all three group games.
“Kyle remains a big part of this squad and he will yet play a big part.”
McAuley says the Irish will head to Paris’ Parc de Princes relishing taking on world champions Germany.
“For us, this means we’re still in the competition,” said the 36-year-old centre-back.
“This is what Northern Ireland is all about, proving people wrong.
“Germany are world champions. It’s going to be a tough, tough game, but football is a romantic game and sometimes the underdogs come through.
“We won’t be fancied, but we will give it our all.
“There is no pressure from outside the camp, our supporters are there for us no matter what.
“They will be having a great time, but we hope we get into the last 16 and knock-out football, because after that, anything can happen.”
McAuley’s header, early in the first half, was the first time a Northern Ireland player has scored a goal at a major finals since Gerry Armstrong netted in a 1-0 win against Spain in the group stages of the 1982 World Cup.
“It’s been a long time,” admitted McAuley.
“We have talked about leaving a legacy and hopefully we can produce more players from Northern Ireland who can get players to these tournament.
“But things like this makes football special. It’ll be a few years down the line before I’ll look back on this and see how special it is. It’s still sinking in.”
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