International football, one minute a player is in total agonish over a missed opportunity and then the next minute provides a sublime cross for a colleague to score the match winner. Those were the roller coaster of emotions experienced by Wes Hoolahan in the closing stages of the game but wasn’t it worth it?
Republic of Ireland have advanced to the last sixteen of the competition by virtue of a late late Robbie Brady goal which secured a best third place spot. There will be some that will rumble on Conte’s Italian lineup (a team full of fringe squad players) but given the pressure that was on the Republic of Ireland tonight, the performance was on point throughout.
Martin O’Neill has being ridiculed by the media hoards for not taking risks in team selection, cue tonight’s selection which was a lineup of several big calls. The decision to play a new central defensive partnership was a ballsy move. Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy who both had excellent Championship seasons were introduced for John O’Shea and Ciaran Clark whose lack of pace and game decision making respectively was costly in the Belgian performance last weekend.
Many expected O’Neill to sacrifice James McCarthy in the central midfield but Glenn Whelan was dropped. The decision was justified as McCarthy controlled the pocket in front of the back four and his commitment to the cause was seen when he put his head and body on the line throughout his seventy minute cameo.
The Belgium game approach of 4-5-1 formation was ditched for a 4-4-2 formation. Daryl Murphy coming into the attack and his aerial ability caused Italian’s defense problems. Murphy’s nuisance factor allowed Shane Long to make runs down the channels. It was an excellent team selection; full of positive energy and the players produced.
High tempo was the key from the first exchanges. Republic of Ireland players pushed up high up the park, not allowing Italy to settle into the game. Republic were the dominant force in that opening period and Hendrick again to the fore with a composed display. His passing and game management were superb and was unlucky not to score with a long range early in this contest.
Italy were struggling to get to grips with Ireland’s physicality. Tackles were being made, bodies were committed to the cause and Italy were forced to concede corners and set pieces deep in their territory. Daryl Murphy produced a fine header which resulted in an excellent save and then cam e a crucial moment potentially in the game. How the energetic James McClean was not given a penalty for a stone wall push in the back, god will ever know? The Romanian official had a great position to see the incident and bottled it.
Seamus Coleman as captain led from the front; his leadership in the back four was sublime. Duffy and Keogh reveled in the surroundings. Their dominance in the air and their awareness of danger (something bereft in the previous partnership) resulted in Darren Randolph having a quiet night. Every player put an amazing shift in and the rewards were justified.
Italy could have picked Ireland’s pocket with a late strike which hit the post but Republic of Ireland were increasingly the team looking for the result. McGeady, Hoolahan cameos meant that Italy were forced on the back foot. Thiago Motta was now in an extremely deep position and the cross which led to the goal split open the Italian defense. Brady’s energy to get into the box and then to have the composure to head the ball on target were stellar.
Cue epic scenes in the stadium. Cue epic scenes in every house and bar in the Republic of Ireland. The last three minutes ticked so slowly but the Republic of Ireland played out the match in Italy’s half of the pitch. Duffy and Keogh marshaled the back four with some excellent clearances immediately after the ultimate game winner. Exhaustion was to the fore in that last five minutes but mentally they continued to perform their job with professionalism.
The vital win was secured. A trip to Nice to play the host nation. We owe France one after that disgusting Henri handball in Stade De France. It will be an intriguing couple of days for Ireland management to decide the first team selection. How can you leave anyone from the side tonight out? Duffy and Keogh were as solid as seen in this tournament. We do not need Damien Delaney. McCarthy answered his critics with an immense performance, aware to all the danger posed by Italy.
Wes Hoolahan is the game changer in our side; his ability to pick a pass or cross is lacking in others in the team. How he was able to do this after the glorious opportunity squandered moments before says a lot about the player. He wanted the responsibility to deliver the key cross in for an Irish player to get on the end of. It was a marvelous crescendo to cap an roller coaster pool stage for Republic of Ireland. Roll on Sunday already!