As both sides trying to erase difficult losses in their Euro 2016 openers, Ukraine and Northern Ireland aim for their first points on Group C’s table in Thursday’s showdown at Stade des Lumieres in Lyon.
The tournament underdogs last squared off in 2003 and before that in 2002 with no goals scored. Their two matches between 1996 and 1997 resulted in victories for Northern Ireland, though only four goals have been scored in the all-time series.
Ukraine fell to a powerful German side 2-0 and Northern Ireland felt the frustration of a hard-fought 1-0 loss to Poland, despite largely hanging with the Poles throughout the match while reveling in its first major tournament match in 30 years.
However, both sides can improve their chances of moving into the quarterfinals by solidifying third place in the group with a victory and each as their strong points to make it happen.
For one, Michael O’Neill’s side were riding a 13-match undefeated streak before facing Poland. During the blistering run, including the Euro qualifying stages, Northern Ireland forced draws out of highly reputable Hungary and Romania and handed Greece a 3-1 defeat in October.
O’Neill, though, told reporters that his side lacked the grittiness against Poland that helped it return to the big international stage and that may be required to topple the continent’s elite clubs.
“What we didn’t do [against Poland] was the ugly part of the game and that’s something we generally always do well,” O’Neill told reporters Wednesday. “When I say ‘ugly’ I mean in terms of the competitiveness. We’ll have to be at our very best – better in a lot of aspects than in game one. Our object was always to make sure we went into the last game with something to play for.”
O’Neill’s comments were part a response to Ukraine midfielder Ruslan Rotan’s, who stated Northern Ireland employs a “purely British style” with “high crosses” and “lots of scrambling.”
Ukraine manager Mykhaylo Fomenko, meanwhile, somewhat echoed his midfielder’s stance but stressed his squad needed to limit its mistakes in order to defeat a “dangerous” Northern Ireland counter attack. Ukraine completed only 79 percent of its passes against the Germans, and failed to capitalize after forcing 12 cornerkicks.
“First of all I expect from my guys is to fulfill the game plan,” Fomenko said. “Of course, no matter how much you want it, you can’t have any process without mistakes. The important thing is that there are fewer of these mistakes, and that they’re not major ones. Northern Ireland have character‑they’re a distinctive team. They play in the English style. They’re dangerous in the counter attacks, very quick in their attacks and set-pieces.”
Prediction: Northern Ireland over Ukraine, 2-1
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN, ESPN Deportes (USA), Kanal Ukrayina, Belarus 5 (Ukraine), TV3 Ireland, STV Scotland, BBC Northern Ireland, ITV 1 UK (Northern Ireland)
Live Stream: ESPN3