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Plenty of graft but a lack of guile and more talking points from Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 loss

Meanwhile, Poland will take a major positive from other players stepping up and delivering.

Image: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Dogged and determined but Michael O’Neill’s side need something more

MANY WOULD’VE FELT what Northern Ireland put up in their tournament opener was largely insipid and uninspiring.

But for long periods, the approach worked a treat.

Poland bossed possession and created all the chances but they were frustrated for long periods too, owing to the spirit of the opposition.

It’s cliched but it was about the sum of the parts and it very nearly got Northern Ireland a point.

The issue is that as much as the system worked so well in qualifying, Poland are a step-up from the likes of Romania and Hungary.

They can be explosive and play with an incredible energy.

And as much as preparations were ‘flawless’, according to O’Neill, it was clear that his side were rattled by just how intense the Poles were in the opening few minutes.

They tried to sit back and absorb, deciding against pressing them and engaging in key zones. But faced with pacy and relentlessly overlapping full-backs as well as the movement of Milik and Lewandowski, it was a very nervy opening.

But they held on and steadied themselves and went to the break scoreless – something that would’ve thrilled O’Neill.

And then they went and conceded shortly after the restart and everything changed.

They failed to hit the target, failed to really cause Poland any issues at the back and that can’t simply be a switch that gets flicked.

Northern Ireland v Poland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group C - Stade de Nice Source: Nick Potts/PA Wire/Press Association Images

If a team starts slowly and aren’t hitting their marks, it’s very difficult to suddenly pull a rabbit from the hat and easily go through the gears.

But it’s a dilemma for O’Neill now.

He’ll probably look at this game and come to the conclusion that his side weren’t that bad, kept their shape well and had plenty of positives.

They lapsed in concentration and were punished and that’s how ruthless it can be.

Will there be something different against Ukraine?

Inevitably, the North were improved after going behind but what will give O’Neill hope is that they didn’t exactly give up a litany of chances as they pushed higher up and were forced to chase things.

You would’ve expected Poland to score at least one more given how the North had to spend so much of the second period in a more advanced position and were forced to take more risks.

Northern Ireland v Poland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group C - Stade de Nice Source: Nick Potts

The energy that Conor Washington provided after coming on may be food for thought for the next assignment with Ukraine and O’Neill will surely recognise that Kyle Lafferty can’t be so starved of the ball for another 90 minutes.

Having someone drop off and play close to him may allow Lafferty get in better positions and become more of a target from crosses – something he couldn’t really do against Poland.

O’Neill will also know that they will not want to have to go into a final fixture against Germany having to get something to be in with a shout of making the knockout stage.

A win against Ukraine and a lot changes.

The question is: do you keep the same approach, acknowledge that it worked for long periods and hope for better luck. Or do you gamble with one or two changes a more of an emphasise on pushing higher and picking up more around the fringes?

Poland solid if unspectacular as others stepped up to the plate

Poland are seen by many as one of the dark horses for the tournament and looked upon as a thrilling offensive outfit owing to having scored so many in qualifying.

But from their 10 qualifiers and the 33 goals they scored, 23 came against Gibraltar and Georgia.

In other more competitive fixtures, everything was pretty tight.

Northern Ireland v Poland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group C - Stade de Nice Source: Nick Potts

And while there was plenty of pace and movement and energy, there were relatively few clear-cut chances created – despite bossing the key areas of the game.

What will be seen as a bonus is that with Robert Lewandowski pretty anonymous throughout, they still had others who stepped up and delivered.

Milik is a talent – as Irish fans and Eredivisie fans will vouch for – while teenager Bartosz Kapustka seemed incredibly comfortable in his biggest ever test for his country.

Grzegorz Krychowiak was strong and commanding in the middle of the park and went close to finding the net too in the second half.

They’re good enough to make the knockout stages and when Lewandowski gets off the mark, they’ll look even more impressive.

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As it happened: Poland v Northern Ireland, Euro 2016

Disappointing start for Northern Ireland as Milik’s strike proves the difference

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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