NICE, France (AP) — Qualifying for a European Championship is one thing. Northern Ireland discovered Sunday that succeeding on European international football’s biggest stage is another thing altogether.
Michael O’Neill’s team made up largely of lower-league journeymen finished top of its qualifying group and came to Euro 2016 on a 12-match unbeaten run. But against a lackluster Poland side, Northern Ireland barely troubled Wojciech Szczesny’s goal in a 1-0 defeat.
O’Neill acknowledged that for some of his players it was a huge leap from lower tier League One football in England to play against the likes of Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski and his Poland teammates.
“We have a number of players that this is the biggest game that they’ll have played in their careers,” he said.
“So we have to give them a system which gives us a chance to take something from the game,” he added. “To be fair, we did that. At the end of the day, the game was 0-0 at halftime, it was 1-0 at the end.”
But while Northern Ireland’s defense managed to stifle Lewandowski throughout the match, its attack barely troubled the Poland goal.
It wasn’t until the 71st minute that substitute Conor Washington forced Szczesny into decisive action, outpacing defender Artur Jedrzejczyk but losing a race to the ball with the Roma goalkeeper.
Kyle Lafferty gave Northern Ireland fans at the Stade de Nice something to cheer in the 76th minute with an ambitious bicycle kick, but the effort sailed harmlessly wide.
The tournament was boosted to 24 teams from 16 four years ago, but as a group winner, Northern Ireland would have qualified even for the smaller event. Now it has to justify the team’s place in France.
Northern Ireland players got a videotaped pep talk from golfer Rory McIlroy on Saturday night, but it didn’t help as they looked out of their depth in their first Group C match, the luck of the Irish deserting them when it counted.
Next up is a tough match against Ukraine on Thursday in Lyon, before finishing group play against world champion Germany. O’Neill will use his team’s triumphant qualification campaign as inspiration.
“We have to recognize the quality of the opposition we’re playing,” he said. “We found ways to win in qualification and we have to look back at that and we have to find those ways to try and take something out of the final two games as well.”
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