Stephen Kenny pencils in Italy trip as U-21’s Euro decider
Final group game next October against the Azzurri could decide who finishes top
Stephen Kenny saw his Ireland Under-21s side beat Sweden 4-1 in Tallaght. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Stephen Kenny believes that Ireland qualifying for a first ever European Championships at Under-21 level can come down to a make or break game in Italy next October ,when a win against the top seeds could potentially decide top spot in the group.
For the second time in the campaign, Kenny’s young players came from behind to beat Sweden on Tuesday night, with Ireland producing a remarkably impressive second half performance to simply sweep the Swedes away.
Lee O’Connor, Adam Idah, Troy Parrott and Zachary Elbouzedi all got on the score sheet for the home side in Tallaght where their opponents ultimately appeared to give up the ghost in the face of relentless pressure through the closing stages.
It was a huge result for an Irish side that would most likely have been out of the running for automatic qualification, and under a great deal of pressure to hold on to the play-off spot that goes to all but the very best runners-up, had they lost and Kenny now believes they can push the Italians - three points behind but with two games in hand - all the way to the end of the campaign.
“I think Sweden are a good team,” he says. “They battered Iceland and were 3-0 up against Luxembourg at half-time, so for us to go ten points ahead of them. [they have]three matches in hand, but one of those matches is against Italy, so it is a strong position for us to be in. And I think we will go to Italy to win the group in the last game.”
The win here came after a decisive intervention by the manager at half-time when Ireland were trailing 1-0. The decision to bring on both Liam Scales and Connor Ronan was influenced by concerns about the fitness and of Conor Masterson and Jayson Molumby but there was a positional reshuffle too and Kenny was thrilled with the way his players reacted to ensure the plan worked out.
“We played three quarters of the game on the right hand side,” said Kenny after shifting Parrott to the left at the break so as to bring Connor Ronan into the central role, behind Adam Idah. “What he did was play Zach (Elbouzedi) high on the right, and Lee (O’Connor) is a raider and Troy came in from the left when we had the ball, so we were able to overload that area.
“So the three goals came from the right wing but he (Parrott) was involved in it really for some of the build-up for that on the left.
“We scored four and I feel we could have scored eight and two of the four of the goals came from that position. But it was the players, their individual skill and passing ability. Physically we were giving away a lot; Jason Knight and Connor Ronan compared to the players (they were up against) who were physical and quite strong. But we had sharp football intelligence.”
Ireland’s next games will be at home to Iceland then away to Luxembourg next March with the Italy game to follow in the autumn. That, though, may well be played under a different manager with Kenny due to have taken over the seniors a couple of months previously.