EURO 2016: Northern Ireland have it all to do, but we can’t be too critical of opening defeat

Conor Washington provided an attacking spark in the second half

Conor Washington provided an attacking spark in the second half

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Northern Ireland were offered a stark reminder of the challenge facing them at Euro 2016– but it is hard to be too critical of Michael O’Neill’s side following Sunday’s defeat to Poland.

Arkadiusz Milik’s second-half goal proved the difference in the searing heat of the Cote d’Azur, with the dam finally bursting in the 51st minute following wave after wave of Polish attack.

It was a first defeat in 13 games for Northern Ireland as they made their debut at a European Championship.

O’Neill’s players had the weight of a nation on their shoulders, a burden that was evident during a nervy yet stoic first-half display.

The deadlock was broken in clinical fashion shortly after the break, and despite a late foray Northern Ireland’s attempts came to nothing.

There will be disappointment in the result, and Sunday will have been a steep learning curve for O’Neill and his players.

The post-mortem from the game might reflect on a lack of attacking ambition, but up until Milik’s opener O’Neill would have been relatively content with the goalless scoreline.

His side didn’t flinch in the face of Poland’s utter dominance in the first half.

Defensive trio Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart shackled the threat of Robert Lewandowski – the qualifying tournament’s top scorer.

And after going behind there was a spirited response that saw substitute Conor Washington and captain Steven Davis raise heartbeats with half-chances.

But, in the end, the result will declare that Northern Ireland lost.

And it leaves O’Neill with an uphill battle as he looks to progress to the knockout stages.

To do that Northern Ireland will have to adopt a more attacking philosophy against Ukraine on Thursday.

Kyle Lafferty – an isolated figure against Poland – will need some support in the form of Washington or Jamie Ward.

Stuart Dallas – a half-time replacement for Paddy McNair – may get the nod from the start.

Thursday is another seismic test against a dangerous Ukraine side, but caution will have to be cast to the wind.