Euro 2016: Watching brief for Norwich City’s Kyle Lafferty in Northern Ireland’s 2-0 win over Ukraine
PUBLISHED: 18:58 16 June 2016 | UPDATED: 19:21 16 June 2016
Norwich City striker Kyle Lafferty was an unused substitute in Northern Ireland’s historic 2-0 Euro 2016 Group C win over Ukraine in Lyon.
Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn secured a famous win for Michael O’Neill’s underdogs to pick up their first-ever victory at the European Championships and move level on three points with Germany and Poland, ahead of the group favourites’ clash later on Thursday night.
Lafferty was one of five changes to O’Neill’s starting line up, with QPR frontman Conor Washington in the lone front-running role before Josh Magennis was introduced for the final stages.
Lafferty, who scored seven goals in qualifying to fire his country to the finals, was left on the bench after leading the line for the opening 1-0 defeat to Poland. The City frontman did go into the tournament with a calf problem suffered in the final warm up game before suffering a groin injury in training.
Veteran West Brom defender McAuley nodded home four minutes after the restart from a brilliant Oliver Norwood free-kick before McGinn pounced in stoppage time as 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 later win or a draw for Germany, Northern Ireland will now meet the world champions in Paris next week in their final group game knowing progression to the knock-out stages is within reach.
O’Neill elected to be bold with five changes, including talisman Lafferty, from the lacklustre offering against the Poles in Nice.
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.
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 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.