In a contest of long shots, the most spectacular moments were meteorological. But the smaller of the minnows, Northern Ireland, coped best with the bad weather, beating Ukraine 2-0.
Both Northern Ireland and Ukraine were looking for their first points in rain-drenched Lyon with an eye toward making it out of Group C.
As expected, the Eastern Europeans seized the initiative while the men in green and white initially sat back in defense. And it was evident right from the start that for Ukraine, the glory days of Andriy Shevchenko are long gone. The Yellow-Blues failed to trouble Northern Irish keeper Michael McGovern in the slightest.
Instead the best chance fell in minute 33 to the green and whites, when defender Craig Cathcart headed a corner just over the crossbar.
Ukraine had far more possession, but Northern Ireland had more shots on goal, and neither side deserved to be ahead. The score at halftime was 0-0. The match was living down to expectations as one of the least anticipated clashes of Euro 2016 thus far.
As the second half began, the rain turned into a downpour – would that perhaps favor the Northern Irish?
Indeed. In minute 48, Gareth McAuley headed home a perfectly placed Oliver Norwood free kick from 30 meters. It was a notable goal – the first scored by Northern Ireland in a major tournament for 30 years.
Northern Ireland’s sudden lead was a cold shower for the Ukrainians, but it seemed more to wake up their opponents to the fact that Shevchenko was no longer playing, and there was no need to treat Ukraine with any deference. The Northern Irish began to take more chances and were stopped only by…hail.
In a curiosity, the match was briefly halted in minute 58, as balls of frozen ice fell from the heavens – would that perhaps favor the Ukrainians, accustomed as they are, to Eastern European winters?
Zovsim nemaye – not at all. Ukraine continued their tepid play. It wasn’t until minute 71 that they had a quality go at goal, but Viktor Kovalenko blazed well over from just outside the penalty area. Ukraine had a couple of late pot shots, but McGovern was faultless.
And Niall McGinn blasted in a rebound in the dying seconds of injury time to secure Northern Ireland the 2-0 win. Proving that nature loves kitsch, there was even a rainbow over the Stade de Lyon, although no leprechauns or pots of gold were on view.
In the final group C matches next Tuesday Ukraine will face neighbors Poland while Northern Ireland go up against Germany.