Republic of Ireland 1 Italy 0
Ireland stormed their way into the last 16 of these European Championships with a victory as dramatic as any this tournament has produced so far and a fiery performance that was better in so many ways than the one which yielded their win over Germany in the qualifying stages.
Robbie Brady stunned Antonio Conte’s side five minutes from time with a close range headed goal that appeared to leave the Irish midfielder on the verge of tears as he ran to celebrate. All around the Dubliner, there was a chaotic outbreak of joy as the Irish fans who made up the bulk of the crowd inside a sweltering Stade Pierre Mauroy erupted.
Minutes later, when the game ended and Ireland’s place in the next round had been confirmed, both players and fans celebrated as if the trophy itself had been won. It was easy to understand why with Sunday’s game against host nation France in Lyon feeling as big as the final itself after the team had gone so close to being eliminated. Produce another performance like this, though, and the adventure might not even end there.
Martin O’Neill shook things up beforehand with his team selection but while four changes and a reshaped formation clearly had an effect, it was the mentality that had been completely transformed. This was one for the fans to savour, a performance full of passion, grit and determination . . . balls as Roy Keane might put it.
Through the opening minutes, there were some markers laid down that the former Manchester United star must have felt proud of, not least by Seamus Coleman, captain for the night and the embodiment through the game of the spirit of resolve the Irish were displaying.
Without Wes Hoolahan for the bulk of the game, the obvious fear was that the team would lack invention up front but at this level of intensity the Italians were out completely on the back foot with Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick testing them with a steady stream of frees and corners. Perhaps the closest Ireland came during that strong opening spell, though, came from play with Hendrick getting onto the end of a Daryl Murphy flick then showing tremendous composure as he advanced on Thiago Motta and Alessandro Florenzi before letting loose with a shot that flew just inches wide of the upright. It was as though Belgium had never happened.
The tone of the contest had been set, it seemed, and the tempo was fairly furious. Perhaps the greatest surprise, however, was that while Ireland have started this way before, here they sustained it right through a pulsating first half and beyond. Though Italy sought to grab a goal on the break late on and went close more than once, it was Ireland who were consistently the better side and clearly the more menacing around goal.
Around a usually crowded penalty area, they might have lacked the footwork required to conjure something extraordinary up but Murphy and Shane Duffy delivered on the aerial threat they were drafted in to provide and when sweeping towards the area from midfield, O’Neill’s men were clearly having a hugely unsettling effect on opponents who didn’t seem to know how to square what was happening here with what they had watched in the reruns of their opposition’s most recent other outing.
If Brady and Hendrick were driving much of what was good about the team, there was clear improvement in several other key areas with James McClean injecting energy and, crucially, more drive down the left while Murphy did the lion’s share of the donkeywork up front and Shane Long drifted a little more easily forward and back out towards the right hand side. Widely tipped to lose his place, James McCarthy also justified his manager’s faith in him on this occasion.
In defence, the newly formed partnership of Duffy and Richard Keogh had their moments, both good and bad, with an overhit back-pass by the Blackburn Rovers player putting his goalkeeper under sudden pressure at one stage but Keogh rode to his rescue at another just Ciro Immobile looked set to open Ireland completely up. Overall, the pair held up incredibly well.
Had Italy scored then, just before the break, it would have been an incredible way for the half to end for Ireland, especially after the penalty claim they had waved away only moments earlier when Frederico Bernardeschi had bundled his way into McClean just as the Derryman was about to let fly from 15 yards.
The Irish were apoplectic given the treatment they were generally being subjected to by Andrea Barzagli and surprise inclusion, Leonardo Bonucci - who appeared to elbow Long in the face at one point early on. Neither, though, looked the world class player here that they had against the Belgians.
At the break, the question was whether they could maintain this sort of tempo into the game’s latter, more open stages and the initial indications were that they could. The Italian threat was more evident as the half wore on, as when Salvattore Sirigu played the ball out wide to Mattia De Sciglio whose run and cross set up Simone Zaza for a volley that was narrowly off target then Lorrenzo Insigne, fresh from the bench, hit the post. But the Irish continued to create more chances, occasionally amid outbreaks uncharacteristic defensive chaos.
Coleman might have done better after one of them with a low drive that was blocked inadvertently by Anglo Ogbonna following a Murphy cross from the left had been parried into the centre of the area by Sirigu after which Bonucci, feeling the pressure himself it seemed, almost teed the Irish skipper up.
Hoolahan had an even better chance in the dying minutes but shot poorly when he should really have released Long who was perfectly placed to score. The Dubliner made amends moments later, though, with a brilliant curling ball that stranded Bonucci and gave Brady a brilliant opportunity to get the winner. As he coolly nodded past Sirigu and even as they celebrated, a multitude of Irish fans mentally started to change their travel plans.
Republic of Ireland
: Randolph; Coleman, Duffy, Keogh, Ward; Hendrick, McCarthy, Brady, McClean; Long, Murphy. Subs: McGeady for Murphy (70 mins), Hoolahan for McCarthy (77 mins), Quinn for Long (89 minsO
Sirigu; Barzagli, Bonucci, Ogbonna; Bernardeschi (Darmian, 60 mins), Sturaro, Motta, Florenzi, De Sciglio; Immobile, Zaza. Subs: Darmian for Bernedeschi (60 mins), Insigne for Immobile (74 mins), El Shaarawy for De Sciglio (82 mins).