Michael O’Neill has dismissed suggestions Northern Ireland are overly physical by throwing the accusation back at Ukraine, who are “not playing the Spanish style”, according to the coach.
Ahead of their meeting in Lyon on Thursday, Ukraine midfielder Ruslan Rotan suggested Northern Ireland are a typically British team, focusing on tough tackling and long balls.
O’Neill made the point that Mikhail Fomenko’s side are themselves powerful and direct, calling on his players to embrace the arm wrestle that awaits them at Stade de Lyon.
“Interesting that was the statement that was made,” he told a news conference when informed of Rotan’s comments.
“Ukraine’s possession [count] was not particularly high against Germany [in a 2-0 defeat]. They also played a lot of long balls in the game, which is very British. They’re a physical team [too].
“I think if you look at the yellow and red cards the Ukrainians have had this season and through qualification – I don’t think they’re playing the Spanish style of football. We expect a tough game physically and a highly technical game as well.
“We have to be prepared to match their physicality. What we didn’t do well the other night was the ugly part of the game and that’s something we generally always do well,” he said, referring to a 1-0 loss to Poland in Nice on Sunday.
“We have to make sure we bring the ugly side of the game … and I don’t mean out with the rules by the way, just in terms of the level of competitiveness.”
O’Neill is also adamant Northern Ireland, despite suffering a loss in their European Championship debut and playing at what is their first appearance at a major championship since the World Cup in 1986, do not need to prove they belong at the competition.
Having reached the tournament with relative ease as the winners of their qualification group, the 46-year-old claimed his team are not suffering from an inferiority complex among some of international football’s major nations.
“We didn’t approach the game with fear. We approached the game with expectation,” he said.
“The tournament has been very tight. We recognise where we need to be better. I don’t think we needed that reassurance of, ‘do we belong here?’
“We felt that all along. Now we have to go and demonstrate that tomorrow night against a strong Ukrainian team.
“Seven other teams have lost first game.
“It’s not as if we’re been cut adrift. We have to use it [the loss] as a motivation factor. We’re determined to do well tomorrow night.”