Goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn fired Northern Ireland to their first tournament win since Gerry Armstrong secured victory against hosts Spain at the 1982 World Cup – as the Green and White Army fended off Ukraine in Group C.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill made a bold decision going into the game, as he made five changes to the side that lost to Poland last week.
The biggest surprise was the exclusion of Kyle Lafferty – who was his country’s top goalscorer in qualifying – as he was replaced by Queens Park Rangers striker Conor Washington ahead of kick-off.
Although Ukraine enjoyed the majority of possession in the opening stages of the match, Mykhaylo Fomenko’s side failed to force goalkeeper Michael McGovern into action.
Ukraine appealed for a penalty when Serhiy Sydorchuk’s long-range effort struck the arm of McAuley, but it would have been harsh for referee Pavel Kralovec to award a spot-kick.
After 34 minutes in Lyon, Craig Cathcart came close to giving O’Neill’s side the lead. A Northern Ireland corner from Jamie Ward found the Watford central defender, who headed just wide of Andriy Pyatov’s goal from eight yards out.
Ukrainian striker Yevhen Seleznyov headed just wide of the Northern Ireland goal early in the second-half, but it was defender McAuley who became the first Northern Irish goalscorer at a major tournament in 30 years, as his back post header from an Oliver Norwood free kick found the back of the net four minutes into the second-half.
Ukraine nearly hit back immediately in the heavy rain, as a Yevhen Konoplyanka free-kick found Seleznyov, but McGovern made a comfortable save.
A hail storm resulted in the players being taken off after 58 minutes, but the players returned to the pitch just two minutes later as the conditions improved.
That delay did not come at an ideal time for O’Neill’s men as they were growing in confidence against a poor Ukrainian side.
Ukrainian midfielder Viktor Kovalenko fired just wide after 71 minutes, and despite more pressure, the Northern Ireland defence stood firm.
Substitute McGinn then wrapped up the three points in the sixth minute of stoppage time after Pyatov denied Stuart Dallas from the edge of the 18-yard area.
Man of the Match: Gareth McAuley (Northern Ireland)
The West Bromwich Albion central defender scored Northern Ireland’s first goal in tournament football since Colin Clarke found the back of the net in a 2-1 defeat to Spain at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
McAuley was a threat from the Green and White Army’s set pieces, but he was particularly impressive defensively as well.
Ukraine struggled to fashion clear-cut chances and McAuley’s fantastic defending was a big reason for Northern Ireland keeping a clean sheet.
He will need to be at his best if O’Neill’s side are to get a positive result against Group C leaders Germany next week.
Northern Ireland face world champions Germany in their final Group C clash inside Paris’ Parc de Princes on Tuesday, June 21. If Northern Ireland secure a positive result, they will almost certainly progress.
Meanwhile; Ukraine will face Poland in Marseille, with their tournament all but over.