GAVIN HORSFALL (@GHorsfall) analyses the odds for Northern Ireland’s second Group C contest at Euro 2016, against Ukraine on Thursday.
Ukraine v Northern Ireland | Thursday 17.00 | ITV1
Of all the nuances of major tournament football perhaps the concept of playing a mini-season of three games over the course of little more than a week is one that poses the most questions.
We often hear that the ability to ‘handle’ tournament football is one of the reasons why the successful sides often rise to the top come the latter stages, don’t we?
For Ukraine and Northern Ireland on Thursday, the question being asked is, how do you react to defeat after losing your opener?
Whilst the sample size for both at major tournaments is small, I think there’s plenty of clues to be gained from a look at the qualifying campaign now that qualifiers are often played over weekends.
Let’s take Mykhaylo Fomenko’s Ukraine, who hardly saw the ball after going behind against Germany on Sunday.
Don’t worry about the data, I’ve written it all down – in qualifying for the last three tournaments, Ukraine have played a game less than four days after a previous one a total of nine times. The headlines read W1-D3-L5 but perhaps the most useful stat is that of goals scored – just four.
In qualifying for France that sample size includes a 1-0 against Macedonia after beating Belarus, a 0-0 draw with Slovakia after another win against Belarus and a 1-0 loss to Spain after beating Macedonia.
A similar story unfolded in their Brazil 2014 campaign, which ended in arguably the most relevant piece of knockout form on show, a 2-0 win at home to France in the first leg of the play-offs followed by a 3-0 reverse just four days later.
Northern Ireland under Michael O’Neill fare slightly better, which gives some indication as to what conclusion I’m going to make.
Qualifying for the last two major tournaments saw Norn Iron play six games with a short turnaround. They W1-D4-L1 but perhaps significantly in this match-up, they scored eight goals.
More recently Northern Ireland beat Greece 2-0 after beating the Faroe Islands, then drew with Hungary and Finland a couple of days after other group-stage victories. For the record, they lost three games in their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign that were quickly followed by two draws and defeat – they did of course score in each of those games.
All this number crunching really does is add weight to a theory that Northern Ireland are better equipped to respond positively after defeat.
Whilst very shortly you’ll be reading me talk up Northern Ireland goals, I could do nothing to put you off a 1-0 Ukraine win; if the Yellows are to progress then that looks by far the most likely outcome – their defensive discipline however could also be their undoing, we saw on Sunday how ill at ease they looked when asked to chase a game of football.
Northern Ireland have more dimensions and in a game where, in all likelihood the losers are on their way home, that’s an important characteristic. If they need to chase the game they can, the four points against Hungary in qualifying is testament to that.
If they need to score they can – two or more goals were scored in six of their 10 qualifiers is another tick in the box. They look more capable of being adventurous; taking a risk that may be the difference between an early exit or an extended stay.
Word from the camp is that players might have been a touch overawed by the experience on Sunday – even more reason to not leave anything in the tank when the 90 minutes is up here.
Being on the right side of Northern Ireland goals is the play.
Ukraine v Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland to score Over 1.5 Goals (51/10 Netbet)