Valuable outing for Ireland against Italy despite no goals

Fixture marks the return of several key players from injury: Leanne Kiernan, Jess Ziu, Niamh Fahey and Aoife Mannion

Italy 0 Republic of Ireland 0

No fear. Not from this Republic of Ireland side, not in Florence, or anywhere else.

Italy created the better chances at Viola Park but Leanne Kiernan’s second-half goal was ruled offside by the Albanian officials as the opening international of 2024 finished scoreless.

Nonetheless, it was a valuable outing, just to witness Ireland hold pace with a football nation ranked 14th in the world. And to see the return of several key players from injury. Kiernan, Jess Ziu, Niamh Fahey and Aoife Mannion in particular.

An unfortunate happenstance seconds before kick-off occurred when Minister for Sport Catherine Martin bumped the women’s team off their advertised RTÉ television slot, on the News Now channel, as the Green Party TD was asked if she would step down in the wake of RTÉ chairwoman Siún Ní Raghallaigh’s resignation.


The game’s absence from the main channels is down to the Six One news and unmovable juggernauts, The Simpsons and Home and Away, on RTÉ2. When the Minister stepped off the Leinster House plinth, the game was 15 minutes old.

Ireland adopted a new formation, with injury to Louise Quinn prompting a back four as Katie McCabe and Jessie Stapleton started on either side of Caitlin Hayes and Fahey.

McCabe plays right back for Arsenal. Well, she does, and she doesn’t. The Gunners Galactico squad encourages wide players to raid forward and fill space others vacate.

The Irish captain will struggle to add to her 26 international goals in the position but it showcases her technique in tight spots.

Also, McCabe took the defensive shackles off Izzy Atkinson. Atkinson is an athletic winger and left West Ham for Crystal Palace in search of game time. She can’t stop scoring for Palace, so her selection was warranted here.

Atkinson understands the Irish system Eileen Gleeson and former Cork City manager Colin Healy are implementing. She ran directly at the Azzurre Femminile, particularly Juventus’s Sara Gama on the occasion of her 140th and final cap.

Gama retired in the 49th minute, getting a James McClean send-off from the Fiorentina crowd.

This is why friendlies should be outlawed: the Italian team halted play, with floods of tears to embrace their skipper. Christian Girelli took the armband when the game resumed.

With Atkinson showing well down the left, the right side looked lopsided as Heather Payne and Jess Ziu got in each other’s way. Ziu had been missing since 2022 after suffering an ACL tear. She took the Denise O’Sullivan slot, but Italy squeezed the centre so Ziu drifted right to good effect.

Not that the hosts had it all their own way. FAI director of football Marc Canham keeps talking about Irish sides having a certain DNA. A high-energy, collective pursuit of possession that chimes with the great nights in Irish football history.

In Florence, that reappeared in the form of a hectic, high press as Atkinson and Ziu backed up Kyra Carusa, who hassled the first Italian to take possession off goalkeeper Katja Schroffenegger.

Carusa had a half-sight of goal early on, but the best chance of the first stanza fell to Martina Piemonte. Courtney Brosnan was almost lobbed by her Everton team-mate when Stapleton allowed Piemonte goal side. She dinked the ball over the Irish goalie but it dropped wide.

Nil-all at the break, Gleeson made five changes before the 70th minute as Amber Barrett and Kiernan brought renewed energy to the contest.

Almost immediately, they should have combined for a goal as Kiernan’s fast break needed a blind pass into the box for Barrett to finish. Italy survived this, and a follow-up shot by Lucy Quinn rolled wide.

That wasn’t the clearest Irish chance of the game, mind. Barrett was cut from the squad last year but her value remains undimmed. On the next play, she cut a low cross to the back post for Kiernan to finish.

As the Liverpool striker wheeled away, the offside flag spoiled a special moment. Tight call. VAR would have been interesting.

The build-up deserves a mention as Heather Payne and Quinn squeezed Ireland downfield before Barrett found Kiernan.

Others made an impact. Mannion defended well on return from knee trouble and Abbie Larkin appeared to twist and nutmeg Azzure, almost at will.

Now it’s just a matter of fitting all these attackers into the same starting XI.

Ireland will take 0-0, especially after Michela Catena blazed over a late chance with only Brosnan to beat.

Must be the luck Gleeson has brought as head coach. That’s seven games in charge now, six wins and a draw with Italy, scoring 20 and conceding two.

The unbeaten streak can continue when Wales come to Tallaght on Tuesday night.

Ireland: Brosnan (Everton); Stapleton (Reading), Hayes (Celtic), Fahey (Liverpool), McCabe (Arsenal); Payne (Everton), Connolly (Bristol City), Littlejohn (London City Lionesses), Atkinson (Crystal Palace); Ziu (West Ham United); Carusa (San Diego Wave). Subs: Lucy Quinn (Birminham City) for Littlejohn (half-time), Kiernan (Liverpool) for Atkinson, Barrett (Standard Liege) for Carusa (both 61), Larkin (Crystal Palace) for Ziu, Agg (Birmingham City) for Stapleton (both 69), Mannion (Manchster United) for Payne.

Referee: Emanuela Rusta (Albania).

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Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent