Stephen Kenny’s Irish U21s to face Italy and Sweden in group
Only one team can qualify from group automatically for 2021 Euro Championships
Republic of Ireland Under-21 manager Stephen Kenny has been handed a difficult qualifying group. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Stephen Kenny says he is happy with the draw his Under-21 side has been handed for the qualifying stages of the 2021 European Championships despite the Irish being handed Italy as top seeds in a group from which only one side can qualify automatically.
“They will be a strong team,” he acknowledges. “Italy have very done well in the Under-19s recently but I’m happy; there are exciting games in there with Italy and Sweden coming to Dublin. It will be tough but we will prepare accordingly.”
Aside from the top two, Ireland will face Iceland, Armenia and Luxembourg, against whom Kenny’s side will open their campaign with a home game on March 24th.
“Not everyone is playing then but we wanted to,” he said after the draw had been and the fixtures agreed in Nyon. “With just the group winners and the two best runners up playing-off for one other spot, we are going to have to do something extraordinary to qualify but we will give it a real go. The fact that Hungary and Slovenia are both going to qualify as hosts when they probably wouldn’t have otherwise, has made it particularly tight.
“We have looked to front-load the fixtures, though, and so we will have six games between September, October and November, including the visit of Italy (in October) and a tough double in November when we go to Armenia, which is a fair trip, and then have a quick turnaround before Sweden come here a few days later but it’s a good programme and I am really looking forward to getting started with it.”
Kenny will actually have moved on before the team plays the return game against Italy, the final match of the qualifying programme, in October 2020 with the Dubliner scheduled to take over the senior national team from Mick McCarthy in August of that year.
With no international dates between now and the spring, Kenny will no real opportunity to work with the under-21 players before the squad assembles for the Luxembourg game but he is, he says, looking to set a couple of games or get a place in a tournament for the June window which will not be used for group games as Italy are, along with San Marino, hosting this year’s European finals.
“There’s nothing confirmed yet but that’s certainly what I am working towards at the moment,” he says. “We’ll see what we can arrange but it is definitely my preference to get something lined up.”
The Italians will start the campaign as strong favourites to progress from Group One. As Kenny suggests, current coach Luigi Di Biagio appears to have a strong group available to him with the Under-19s having made it to the final of their European championships in 2018 when they were narrowly beaten by Portugal in the final and the Under-20s having finished third at the World Cup in the same year.
Sweden have something of a pedigree at this level too with the country having won the tournament when it was staged in the Czech Republic in 2015. More recently, their Under-19s qualified for the European finals in 2017.
Like the Swedes, the Icelanders have established a strong reputation in recent years for developing players with the federation there having invested heavily in facilities and coaching but they have yet to enjoy much success at underage level and their 21s have only ever qualified once for the finals; although that is once more than Ireland.
Fixtures. 2019: Mar 24th: Luxembourg (H); Sept 6th: Armenia (H); Sept 10th: Sweden (A); Oct 10th: Italy (H); Oct 15th: Iceland (A); Nov 14th: Armenia (A); Nov 19th: Sweden (H). 2020: Mar 26th: Iceland (H); Mar 31: Luxembourg (A); October 13: Italy (A).