SAINT-GEORGES-DE-RENEINS, France – Northern Ireland's first major tournament after a 30-year absence is likely to hinge on its match against Ukraine.
Following its 1-0 loss to Poland in its opening match in Group C of the European Championship, Northern Ireland will probably need to beat Ukraine at the Stade de Lyon on Thursday if it's going to stand a chance of qualifying for the round of 16. It faces world champion Germany in its final group game.
For Ukraine, which lost its opening match against Germany 2-0, defeat would clearly be a setback in its attempt to get out of the group stage in the European Championship for the first time. However, its final match in the group is against Poland, a potentially easier proposition than Northern Ireland's.
"I think the players see that it is a cup final for us," defender Jonny Evans said Tuesday after training in Saint-Georges-de-Reneins, a village in eastern France.
"We need to get back to closing people down, being more physical and aggressive and stamp our authority on the match and not let it pass us by," he said.
Evans said the team had watched a recording of the first game and noted where things could be improved.
"It's great when you can watch a game and see what went wrong and not be disheartened by it," he said. "You can take something positive from it."
Ukraine will expect to have more of the ball against Northern Ireland, which may end up playing with five defenders to blunt wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka.
Ukraine troubled Germany several times during their match. Germany's goalkeeper Manuel Neuer made three outstanding saves while Jerome Boateng cleared from the line.
"Northern Ireland's strengths are great fighting spirit, like in all British teams, set-pieces, defensive organization and counterattacks," assistant coach Andriy Shevchenko said at Ukraine's camp in Aix-en-Provence in southern France
"But if we play with desire and passion we can achieve our goal," said Shevchenko, probably Ukraine's best player since it became independent from the former Soviet Union more than two decades ago.