N IRELAND 2 UKRAINE 0
Goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn took Northern Ireland to their first ever European Championship finals victory as a 2-0 win over Ukraine in Lyon kept alive their last-16 hopes.
Veteran West Brom defender McAuley nodded home four minutes after the restart from a brilliant Oliver Norwood free-kick before McGinn swept home in stoppage time as Michael O’Neill’s tactical roll of the dice paid off.
On an evening when they could have been the first nation eliminated from the competition with a defeat, and a win or a draw for Germany later, O’Neill made five changes and dropped Kyle Lafferty.
His players responded by producing a much-improved offering from their defeat to Poland in Nice, either side of a short in-play delay caused by a hailstorm, and they now meet the world champions in Paris next week knowing progression to the knockout stages remains on offer.
O’Neill had elected to go bold having analysed events on the French Riviera and although change was expected, a quintet of different faces in his XI was a real shock.
Most interesting was the omission of striker Lafferty, whose seven goals in qualification had delivered tournament football for the first time in three decades, while Manchester United’s Paddy McNair and the experienced Chris Baird were among the others removed from the starting line-up.
O’Neill had been dissatisfied with what he saw in the early stages against Poland and his rejigged side started with far more energy.
Stuart Dallas, one of those introduced to the line-up, drilled in a fourth-minute shot which was saved by Andriy Pyatov but reached the target, a feat which had eluded O’Neill’s team in the 90 minutes four days earlier.
Conor Washington’s selection gave them more pace and movement up front and he was proving a nuisance for the Ukrainian defence, even if his first shot was well off target.
Lashing rain arrived shortly after kick-off and the Northern Irish looked more at home in familiar conditions, with Michael McGovern having little to do apart from ensuring Yaroslav Rakitskiy’s long-range shot did not squirm beyond him.
The two nations would enter the interval locked in a stalemate, though, as Steven Davis’ effort from Norwood’s free-kick was repelled by Pyatov’s left arm.
Any fears O’Neill had that his team would not be able to score when on top were dispelled four minutes after the restart through a goal from one of his elder statesmen.
McAuley, 36, had peeled off Yevhen Khacheridi at Norwood’s free-kick and this time the quality of the deep set-piece was perfect, the defender able to reach the delivery and nod it back into the far corner.
It was McAuley’s eighth goal in green and white, a return which only Lafferty can better among the 23 men out in France.
It served as a wake-up call for Ukraine, who finally came to life, though McGovern was able to keep out Yevhen Seleznyov’s header from Yevhen Konoplyanka’s free-kick having fumbled at first.
The game had opened up, Norwood and Washington both going close at the other end, but momentum was stopped for both sides when referee Pavel Kralovec halted play amid heavy hailstones.
By the time the 22 men had returned to the sanctuary of the tunnel, the hail had relented, and the delay proved to last for just a few minutes.
Ukraine applied the pressure in the closing stages, Viktor Kovalenko and Konoplyanka firing off target either side of an Andriy Yarmolenko shot which McGovern did well to keep out, but Northern Ireland would not be denied an historic success.
Substitute McGinn finished off in stoppage time after Dallas’ shot had been parried out to him, prompting back-room staff and substitutes alike to celebrate in unison on the pitch, as Northern Ireland secured a memorable triumph.