EURO 2016: Never doubt Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill (second right) victory over Ukraine.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill (second right) victory over Ukraine.

Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn scored in a 2-0 victory over Ukraine on Thursday to give Northern Ireland their first finals win since the 1982 World Cup.

Here News Letter Sport looks at five things we learned from the contest in Lyon.

NEVER DOUBT MICHAEL O’NEILL

Five changes? No Kyle Lafferty? What was O’Neill thinking? It turns out the Northern Ireland boss knew exactly what he was doing. A flat back-four bookended by Aaron Hughes and Jonny Evans shut down Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, while the introduction of Conor Washington, Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas gave them more drive going forward. Defeat could have eliminated the Green and White Army and O’Neill went all-in with his team selection, a bold move which proved inspired.

THERE IS STRENGTH AND DEPTH IN THIS TEAM

Five of the 14 players that featured on Thursday night had not played any part in Nice four days earlier. After two games, the only outfield players in the 23-man squad yet to feature at all are Lee Hodson, Luke McCullough and Will Grigg. O’Neill has decent options in every position, a luxury not afforded previous Northern Ireland managers, and it allows him to tailor his formation to combat the opposition too. It would be no surprise to see the manager shuffle his pack again for the Germans.

THE LAST-16 DREAM IS STILL THERE

Ray Wilkins claimed they would return home without a point and Michael Owen predicted they would finish bottom. O’Neill’s side have already exceeded their expectations ahead of a final Group C contest with Germany in Paris. Even defeat in the French capital would not definitely rule them out of a place in the knockout stages due to four third-placed teams advancing, while a famous upset over the world champions would certainly seal their progress.

KYLE LAFFERTY MAY BE ON THE BENCH AGAIN AGAINST GERMANY

The shocking omission from the starting line-up in Lyon was the exclusion of Lafferty. The talisman in qualifying, who scored on seven occasions to get his country to France, watched on as the busy Washington proved to be a pest for the Ukrainian defence with his pace and movement. O’Neill will expect Germany to dominate possession in Paris and must consider whether Washington will provide a better outlet than the man who sits second on Northern Ireland’s all-time scorers list.

THE WORLD CHAMPIONS SHOULD ELICIT NO FEAR

In their previous four meetings with Germany, Northern Ireland have conceded a staggering 14 goals. They even scored four in their most recent meeting in Belfast in 2005 despite having 10 men for 75 minutes. This is a different Northern Ireland, though, one that is resilient and equipped with belief. The Germans have not looked convincing in either of their first two contests at Euro 2016 and have lost four times in their past nine fixtures. That should serve as a source of encouragement.