Northern Ireland shocked Ukraine 2-0 in Euro 2016 Group C yesterday, thanks to goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn, to keep alive their hopes of reaching the knockout phase.
A flying header from veteran West Bromwich Albion defender McAuley and McGinn’s injury-time strike at a hailstone-battered Stade de Lyon gave Ireland their first ever goals at a European championships finals.
Having recovered after losing their Euro 2016 opener 1-0 to Poland, Michael O’Neill’s Irish now have everything to play for against world champions Germany in their final group game on Tuesday.
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.
The Ukrainians must now beat Poland in Marseille next Tuesday, and hope the Irish lose heavily to Germany, to have any chance of progressing.
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 the Stade de Lyon for the start of the second half.
It did little to hinder McAuley’s diving header 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 in Belfast.
The greasy ball was nearly in the Irish net minutes later as their goalkeeper Michael McGovern twice humbled, then gathered, half chances from Taras Stepanenko, then Yevhen Konoplyanka.
Both teams struggled in the sodden conditions as a hail storm then battered the pitch and on 58 minutes Czech referee Pavel Kralovec decided enough was enough as he 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 for his side.
The Green Army will now make their way to Paris’ Parc de Prince buoyed before they face Joachim Loew’s Germany.
Having scored Northern Ireland’s first goal at a European championships finals, veteran McAuley said his side was delighted to prove a few doubters wrong at Euro 2016.
“Lots of people said we wouldn’t get a point here and now we’ve got three,” beamed man-of-the-match McAuley.
Northern Ireland had lost their opening group game 1-0 to Poland.
“We produced a great reaction after the Poland game and now we have something to show for it,” he said.
The West Bromwich Albion defender’s goal at a hailstone-battered Stade de Lyon put Ireland on course for their first win at a European championships finals.
The thousands of Northern Irish celebrated with their team after their final whistle and can now dream of trying to topple Germany in their last pool game in Paris on Tuesday to reach the knockout phase. “These fans were with us no matter what,” said McAuley. “We’ve got another tough game now against Germany but we’re delighted and hopefully we’ll grow more confident.”
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