It was always going to be difficult for Northern Ireland against Poland. Up against the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Jakub Błaszczykowski, it would have taken a great performance to get a result. Nevertheless, they put up quite a fight in their first game at a major tournament in 30 years and their European Championship debut.
It took a great strike from Arkadiusz Milik, Ajax’s 22-year-old striker who could be seen playing in one of Europe’s biggest leagues very soon, to break the deadlock on 51 minutes. After that, Michael O’Neill’s men struggled to make the transition from ultra-defensive to trying to score and Wojciech Szczesny in the Polish goal was rarely put under threat.
The Green and White Army lined up with six registered defenders on the pitch: Craig Catchart, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Conor McLaughlin and Paddy McNair. They played five at the back and from very early on it was clear as to why they chose to play so defensively. They desperately tried to keep the Polish attackers at bay, and it was very rare to see a Northern Irish player outside of his own half in the first 45 minutes.
Despite dominating the game, Poland found themselves constantly frustrated in the first half as Northern Ireland defended heroically. They had been set up very well, usually keeping eleven men behind the ball and leaving no space for chances to be created. Whenever the Polish did manage to break them down, it was all hands to the pump as each player in a green shirt did everything in his power to keep the ball away from the goal.
Hamilton Academical’s Michael McGovern was forced into making a number of fine saves, the most impressive of which came towards the end of the first half when he tipped a powerful shot from Bartosz Kaputska over the bar. At the other end, Wojciech Szczesny was rarely troubled but did what he had to do with some aplomb—the only scare coming late in the game when he clattered into one of his own defenders and was hurt in the collision.
In the second half, Leeds United’s Stuart Dallas replaced Paddy McNair. This attacking move was meant to help ease the pressure on the Northern Irish defence as they looked to keep the ball further up the pitch, but Poland continued to dominate. They finally got the breakthrough when Arkadiusz Milik fired home from inside the area. It was a great strike from a player who has already been linked with moves away from Ajax and transfer stories about him will surely continue long into the summer.
Milik’s goal dramatically changed things for Northern Ireland in particular. Their eyes had only been on the draw previously, but now they had to find a way to equalise. However, they could not switch to a more attacking formation and simply go gung-ho in search of a goal, as that would make them liable to conceding again and making their task even more difficult.
The Polish attacking pressure did not ease up but Szczesny found himself needing to be more alert as the men in green put in more effort to get forward. But striker Kyle Lafferty did not get much service, and his frustration was shown for all to see later on in the second half as he attempted a spectacular bicycle kick from range which went well wide of the goal, instead of patiently looking for a way to create a better goalscoring opportunity.
Northern Ireland, despite their best efforts, did not create many good chances. Conor Washington found himself through on goal, but Szczesny was able to stop him from getting a shot away, and had Steve Davis been able to get nearer the ball from an attacking free-kick he would have had a half-chance, but apart from that, attempts were few and far between. Poland had 18 shots to their opponents’ two.
The match ended 1-0 and the Polish fans began to celebrate, but the Northern Irish supporters, who had been enjoying themselves all game, did not seem to disheartened. Merely being at the tournament is, in itself, quite an achievement, and any success in a difficult group will be treated as a bonus.
Poland now stand a good chance of reaching the Last 16 if they can either get a result against Germany in the week or beat Ukraine in their final game of the group. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, face a difficult task. If they can beat Ukraine on Thursday, it will give them an outside chance of qualifying for the knockout stages, but they will still require results elsewhere to go their way and possibly a positive result against the world champions..
Should they somehow get a result against the Germans, it will surely be the greatest moment in Northern Ireland’s footballing history.