Poland 1 Northern Ireland 0: Michael O’Neill spoke on Saturday about how his team needed to embrace this game rather than fear it, but against Poland Northern Ireland played like a team awed by the occasion and they succumbed meekly in their first game in a major finals in 30 years.
Lauded as an outfit that punched well above its weight by topping its group in qualification, it was difficult to avoid the feeling that they simply hadn’t done themselves justice on a night when their unbeaten record of a dozen games came to a grinding halt.
Grind being the operative word.
Thousands of their supporters had congregated merrily along the promenade and in the bars, restaurants and cafes under baking hot skies all weekend and the temperature was still at a muggy 23 degrees when the game began yesterday at six o’clock.
Kyle Lafferty’s name on the teamsheet an hour before kick-off was exactly the sight Northern Ireland’s boisterous fans wanted to see after the striker’s groin issues last week and yet he was all but peripheral to events last night.
O’Neill has earned a reputation as something of a tactical innovator with formations that regularly cause surprise and his decision to play five at the back and Lafferty up front on his own here, though no different in that regard, was a statement of intent.
Or, to be more accurate about it, lack of it in that they were impotent offensively.
The men in green sat dangerously deep from the off and through an opening 15-minute spell in which Poland enjoyed close to 75% possession.
It made for a hair-raising baptism of fire as balls whizzed in and around goalkeeper Michael McGovern’s box and goalmouth.
Rope-a-dope stuff. Without the devastating counter.
Arkadiusz Milik, the Ajax player who plays off the shoulder of Robert Lewandowski, had two half-decent chances in that frantic beginning, but it was in the second quarter, when the siege lifted somewhat, that the best chances of the half were fashioned by the eastern Europeans.
Milik, who outshone Lewandowski throughout, really should have scored just after the half-hour when he found the side-netting with the goal at his mercy, while McGovern produced a superb save from a long-range Grzegorz Krychowiak shot six minutes before the break.
Krychowiak was calling most of the tunes from the midfield as the Poles sought to break down a defensively committed Northern Ireland rearguard that at times included all eleven players and one which resorted frequently to lunging blocks and hoofed clearances.
There was no pretence to try anything complicated.
The one and only offensive tactic was long balls towards an isolated Lafferty, though O’Neill seemed unperturbed as he looked on from the technical area with his hands stuffed deep in his pockets.
The manager’s only change at the interval was to replace young Paddy McNair with Stuart Dallas, but Northern Ireland were eventually undone by a move down their left flank after 51 minutes when Jakub Blaszczykowski squared for the ever-dangerous Milik.
Somehow, for all the North’s defensive focus and undoubted zeal, the Pole found himself in an oasis of space and his low finish was just about accurate and hard enough to squeeze past McGovern.
O’Neill’s side needed more than stubbornness and defensive muscle now but their attacking efforts, though slightly greater in number, were hardly more effective with the best chance coming, unsurprisingly, from a dead ball with four minutes to play.
It was a clever move — a free-kick played unexpectedly low down the left flank of the unsuspecting Polish defence for Steven Davis who peeled off from the crowd to collect. But his despairing lunge and inability to make contact was symbolic of their evening.
O’Neill will have to learn from this. And adapt again. Davis summed it up while the sweat was still popping on his forehead when he admitted that they simply had to be better with the ball from here on in. Braver, was the captain’s word.
That sounded right.
With Germany their final opponents in the group, Northern Ireland must approach Thursday’s meeting with Ukraine in Lyon with the mindset that nothing less than a victory is a necessity if they are to carry hopes of a knockout berth towards the weekend.
The least they should do is go out with their boots on.
M McGovern, C McLaughlin, C Cathcart, J Evans, G Macauley, P McNair, O Norwood, C Baird, S Ferguson, S Davis, K Lafferty
S Dallas for McNair (HT); C Washington for Ferguson (66); J Ward for Baird (76).
W Szczesny, L Piszczek, K Glik, M Pazdan, A Jedrzejczyk, H Blaszczykowski, G Krychowiak, K Maczynski, B Kapustka, A Milik, R Lewandowski
T Jodlowiec for Maczynski (78); K Grosicki for Blaszczykowski (80); S Peszko for Kapustka (88)
O Hategan (Romania)
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