Ireland U21s brace for must-win clash against Norway
Declan Rice included in team as Martin O’Neill resists urge to promote him to full squad
Republic of Ireland Under-21s midfielder Declan Rice during training. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Declan Rice’s credentials make him worthy of senior squad inclusion but while Martin O’Neill’s side work out whether their campaign ends or continues over the next five days, the West Ham United midfielder is on Republic of Ireland Under-21 duty.
Tonight Noel King’s side take on Norway at Tallaght Stadium (7.45pm) before Israel visit the same venue on Monday. For Ireland, to challenge top seeds and reigning champions Germany for the one automatic ticket to the 2019 finals in Italy and San Marino, back-to-back victories are essential. Four of the best runners-up across the nine qualifying groups earn play-off spots.
Ireland have begun the campaign in encouraging fashion, beating Kosovo 1-0 in March and returning from Azerbaijan last month with a 3-1 win.
Rice, the London-born player who declared for Ireland at 16 through his grandparents from Cork, made his Under-21 debut in Baku and O’Neill resisted the urge to promote him to the full squad having observed the holding midfielder first hand in May during a training camp at Fota Island.
“I enjoyed my time with the senior squad but I’m only 18 and not expecting be there full time at present,” he explained.
“Some of the advice I got from Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane over those three days will serve me well in my career.
“I’m still eligible for the Under-19s, and might have been with them this week, so I’m just delighted to be with the Under-21s.”
King described Norway as a “huge challenge” when the draw was made in January but they’ve struggled both on and off the pitch. Despite opening the campaign with victory over Kosovo, they forfeited the game for fielding an ineligible player. Their chance of atonement in the away fixture between the nations ended in a 3-2 defeat and they were held scoreless by Israel last month.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (probable): K O’Hara (Manchester United); D Kane (Huddersfield Town), R Sweeney (Bristol Rovers), S Donnellan (Walsall), C Whelan (Liverpool); D Rice (West Ham), J Cullen (Bolton Wanderers); H Charsley (Everton), R Manning (QPR), R Greco-Cox (QPR); R Curtis (Derry City).