A second-half goal from Arkadiusz Milik proved enough for Poland to clinch a 1-0 win over Northern Ireland in their Euro 2016 Group C opener on Sunday.
Milik’s 51st-minute strike from the edge of the penalty area secured Poland their first ever win at a European Championship at the seventh attempt.
The result makes it an unlucky 13 for Northern Ireland, who had entered their first major international tournament in 30 years off the back of a 12-match unbeaten run.
Not even the presence of Kyle Lafferty, passed fit to start after overcoming a groin injury picked up in training on Tuesday, could help Northern Ireland find the net at Nice’s Allianz Riviera.
The striker was a spectator in the early stages, as Euro 2012 co-hosts Poland – for whom Robert Lewandowski was quiet – started at a ferocious pace.
With full-backs Artur Jedrzejczyk and Lukasz Piszczek overlapping at every opportunity, they peppered the Northern Irish area with crosses.
Yet for all their pressure, the Poles struggled to break down a resolute defence.
Milik wasted easily the best opportunity before the break, firing over from eight yards out just after the half-hour mark.
Impressive teenager Bartosz Kapustka also forced goalkeeper Michael McGovern into an acrobatic save after teeing himself up for a left-footed drive on the edge of the area.
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, failed to muster an attempt at goal in the first 45 minutes.
However, Michael O’Neill’s side were forced to come out of their shell once Milik finally managed to get a shot on target in the opening stages of the second half.
Picked out by Jakub Blaszczykowski’s cutback from the right wing, the Ajax forward took a perfect first touch to tee up a low, left-footed drive that flashed beyond the diving McGovern and into the net.
The busy Kapustka was denied the chance to double Poland’s advantage by a fine covering tackle by Conor McLaughlin.
Blaszczykowski then flashed an angled shot just beyond the target, while goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny had to be quick off his line to deny substitute Conor Washington from making an immediate impact on proceedings.
Milik missed out on grabbing his second when he sent a well-struck volley straight at McGovern, meaning the game remained in the balance right through to the final whistle.
Steven Davis had Northern Ireland’s one real chance to grab an equaliser, but the captain failed to get away a shot as he fell to the turf. The moment rather summed up his side’s attacking performance, leaving them with work to do ahead of games against Ukraine and Germany.
Key Opta stats:
– Northern Ireland have failed to win their last six matches at major tournaments (D2 L4).
– Northern Ireland registered just two attempts versus Poland; the joint-lowest total by a team in a European Championship match (between1980 and 2016) alongside Czech Republic vs Portugal in 2012.
– Arkadiusz Milik (22y 104d) is the youngest ever goalscorer for Poland in European Championship finals history.
– Jakub Blaszczykowski has had a hand in three of Poland’s four goals at the Euros (one goal, two assists).