It turns out the luck of the Irish might not have been used up in Paris on Tuesday night after all. The Republic knew they had to win here and for 85 minutes it looked like they were going to be frustrated by Italian competence at defending, even with a string of reserves on the pitch.
It did not help matters that they were the better looking side for much of the game, or that they were denied a penalty at the end of the first half. You have to force your own luck in tournaments and coming into this game with a single point was always going to make qualification a tall order.
The best the Republic have played in France was in their opening game against Sweden, and had they kept it up for 90 minutes and held on to their lead their Euro 16 story might have been different.
The Republic do like a scrap, however, and they certainly gave Italy one of those, with James McClean scrapper in chief. Scrappers usually know about sucker punches too, and just as Italy thought their opponents had blown themselves out they came up with a late clincher. Fresh legs in Aidan McGeady and Wes Hoolahan combined to find space at last, and from Hoolahan’s cross Robbie Brady headed a joyous winner. In terms of a gameplan, if tiring Italy out then coming up with new questions in the last few minutes was one, Ireland played it to perfection. The celebrations at the end suggested this was certainly the best-timed game Ireland have played in the tournament. France probably need to start work on the stamina exercises right now.
Italy were in carefree mood to begin with, or as carefree as a side could be when they took the field knowing Spain would be their next opponents whatever happened. They made eight changes from their last game, and why not? Even defeat could not prevent them finishing on top of Group E, for thanks to the head to head rule there was nothing Belgium could do on the final day of the first stage to knock them off their perch.
Might as well keep as many legs as fresh as possible for the round of 16 showdown seemed to be the Italian way of thinking, which perhaps gave Ireland a glimmer of hope, given that the result was inconsequential to Italy and several of their players were making their first starts of the tournament. Note to Roy Hodgson: win your first two games and you can make as many changes as you like for the third. Winning a single game against Wales by virtue of a stoppage-time goal does not entitle you to quite such a large stack of casino chips, though by the time the Icelandic saga is over the England manager will probably have heard enough about fish as well as chips.
There was early encouragement for the Irish in the form of a Jeff Hendrick shot that flew narrowly wide, a spirited challenge by McClean that dispossessed Leonardo Bonucci, and a mix-up between the same Italian defender and his goalkeeper that would never have happened with Gianluigi Buffon. If Salvatore Sirigu felt bad about that he redeemed himself shortly afterwards with a fingertip save from Daryl Murphy’s header.
As the mid-point of the first half approached Ireland must have been quite pleased with themselves. They had knocked the Italians out of their rhythm with some committed tackling, although perhaps Antonio Conte’s changes bore some responsibility for that, and created the game’s best chances. By the half-hour mark they were keeping Italy pinned in their area with a succession of corners. When Darren Randolph dragged the ball back with the sole of his boot on his six-yard line to leave Simone Zaza chasing fresh air it produced the loudest cheer of the half from the fans in green behind that goal.
It was becoming clear by then that Ireland were likely to have some sort of hero in the indefatigable McClean. The free-kick that led to a double booking for Sirigu and Shane Long was won by McClean on the left, running with pace at Italian defenders and beating Andrea Barzagli so comprehensively that the Juventus man was obliged to check back and bring him down. It was also McClean’s directness that led to the penalty controversy on the stroke of the interval. The referee saw nothing wrong with Federico Bernardeschi’s challenge, though even from the opposite end of the pitch the Irish fans could tell the defender had jumped in on McClean, barging him off the ball just as he was in the act of shooting.
In the second half McClean was just using his pace to win free-kicks, as when reaching the ball first to win a decision against a flummoxed Bonucci. Every Irish forward was full of fight and running, but McClean was fuller than most, a go-to man constantly shouting for the ball on the left. It was a compliment of sorts when Italy brought on Matteo Darmian to replace Bernardeschi at right-back.
Inevitably the Irish flagged towards the end, frustrated by Italy’s defensive ability to close out the game, though that may have been just what they wanted their opponents to think. In which case Ireland survived a let-off when the substitute Lorenzo Insigne struck Randolph’s post with his opening shot. But it was Martin O’Neill’s substitutes who made the difference, breathing fresh hope into the airless chamber of the Stade Pierre Mauroy, rolling away the stone when Irish hopes seemed buried.
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