Italy 0 Republic of Ireland 1: Five things we learnt
Martin O’Neill gets his team selection spot on and Ireland’s intensity sees them into last-16
James McClean had one of his best games for Ireland against Italy in Lille. Photograph: Afp
Ireland boss Martin O’Neill was stuck between a rock and a hard place when he made his selection ahead of the Italy game. On paper the side which had been well beaten by Belgium was his best, yet a number of key players had failed to perform. So, does he persist with those who had yet to show up, or does he ring wholesale changes? In the end, O’Neill went for a bit of both, and it paid off. James McCarthy had garnered a lot of criticism after a traumatic afternoon in Bordeaux but retained his spot and was quietly efficient in his favoured holding midfield role. O’Neill’s new centre half partnership, Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh, were resolute until the last in Lille, while James McClean was excellent on the left and Daryl Murphy added a sorely needed dimension up front. All in all, O’Neill got it spot on.
Intensity so important
All of the smaller nations who have made it through to the last 16 - while taking some notable scalps along the way - have had the same thing in common. The intensity in which they have played, harrying and snapping at more heralded opponents and making life uncomfortable for them. One of the most disappointing aspects of Ireland’s defeat to Belgium was their sluggishness off the ball and their willingness to let Belgium have possession. But they were a different side in Lille, pressing Italy to breaking point from the opening minute. Seamus Coleman’s early reducer on Mattia De Sciglio set the tone and Ireland forced the issue at a high tempo throughout.
But possession helps as well
Another major frustration which came from the Belgium game was that when Ireland did finally win the ball back they were unable to keep it, instead opting for a repeated agricultural hoof to the physically outgunned Shane Long for the majority of the match. In Lille, although Ireland were a different side without the ball they were also much better with it. Indeed, after 35 minutes Martin O’Neill’s men had enjoyed 61 per cent of the possession, and enjoyed a similar dominance during the second half. It didn’t mean Ireland were completely dominating the ball and knocking at about with abandon, but their passing was transformed despite the pitch in Lille being a bog compared to that of Bordeaux. James McCarthy sat deep and played simple balls while Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady both retained it well. It also helped that Ireland played with a physical striker in Daryl Murphy who held it up.
Daryl Murphy a vital ally for Shane Long
Shane Long is Ireland’s premier striker and came into the tournament off the back of a fine season for Southampton, but it made gruesome viewing watching him getting bullied and manhandled by Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in Bordeaux. On Wednesday Martin O’Neill opted to partner Long with Daryl Murphy and Ireland reaped the benefits. Murphy has obvious limitations, indeed, he has now gone more than 20 games without scoring a first goal for Ireland. Yet his presence alone helped transform Ireland in Lille. Rather than ceding possession every time the ball was knocked long Murphy was able to hold it up well, and he was a constant thorn for the Italians at set pieces. And while Long still didn’t have any clear cut opportunities Murphy helped detract the attention of Barzagli, Ogbonna and Bonucci away from his speedy partner, and Ireland looked a better side for it.
James McClean shines
A few eyebrows were raised when James McClean was named to start in central midfield on the official Uefa team sheet but as expected he took up a role on the left of midfield and was excellent throughout. McClean gave Ireland a real balance - allowing Stephen Ward to operate as a normal fullback while Robbie Brady could concentrate on matters in the middle of the park. McClean was full of running both on and off the ball and his pace caused Federico Bernadeschi real problems, so much so he was replaced by Matteo Darmian early in the second half. As well as offering an attacking outlet his runs from deep are a great reliever of pressure, and his pace is matched by his physicality. He burst into the box in the first half and was upended by Bernadeschi only for Ireland’s penalty claims to be harshly waved away. On last night’s showing, he has to start against France.