This morning saw the announcement of the 2023 European U21 Championship qualification playoff fixtures in Nyon, Switzerland
The draw threw up some fascinating ties and provided a massive opportunity for the Republic of Ireland and Israel to advance to the UEFA U21 European Championship next summer.
In this blog post, Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over both the Republic of Ireland and Israel current campaigns to date ahead of the September two legged showdown.
What is on the line?
The record of the Republic of Ireland in this grade historically has been very poor. There is no point sugar coating it.
This age grade often left in the cold as senior squad needs usurped the progress in this competition. If the Republic of Ireland were to beat Israel, it will be the side’s first ever appearance in this tournament since the tournament was conceived back in 1978.
Given the talent in the Republic of Ireland senior squad who could be eligible to play for this age group, then this playoff accomplishment is a superb achievement for Jim Crawford, management and squad.
For Israel, they will aim to make the finals for the first time since 2013. They have appeared in the group stages of the UEFA U21 championships twice (2007, 2013).
Republic of Ireland qualification group campaign so far
The Republic of Ireland campaign to get to this point has had highs and lows indicative of a playing group who are learning to adapt to international football.
Jim Crawford’s side were grouped with Italy, Sweden, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Luxembourg. A tricky group for the Republic of Ireland side.
The opening four fixtures in this group provide optimism and scope for improvement in equal measure. A professional two nil win over a dangerous Bosnia and Herzegovina outfit in the opening round away was a superb start.
Four days later and the side dropped their first points of the campaign. It was a harsh lesson for the team as Luxembourg punished Ireland’s shooting inaccuracies to level the game late from the penalty spot after Whelan had finally broken the deadlock with twenty minutes to go. A defensive lapse cost the side a victory.
The question of resilience and producing a performance were raised in the visit of Luxembourg to Tallaght in early October. The answer was emphatic. Republic of Ireland providing more attacking width and goals followed from Kayode and a Coventry penalty. A corner turned or not?
Think again as the Republic of Ireland were dealt another huge lesson in international football. The pregame talk was on Covid-19 and availability of certain players for this game in Podgorica. An early two goal burst from Montenegro coming from defensive lapses was sufficient for the hosts to win despite a McGuinness goal and a late Coventry penalty miss on eighty-three minutes.
This loss was required to focus minds within the camp. Jim Crawford’s side were effectively in playoff mode after Italy accounted for the Republic of Ireland two nil in November 2021. Italy were the standout team in the group and goals from Lucca and Cancellieri were enough to secure three points for the Azzuri.
Two crunch fixtures against Sweden followed. A cagey fixture in Tallaght was decided in injury time late in the contest when O’Neill scored.
It opened the group again for the Republic of Ireland and then their best performance of the group ensued when they defeated Sweden in Boras two nil. Ross Tierney’s opener and Tyriek Wright’s late goal sufficient to win the contest. Yes, there were nervy moments, but the side had secured six points off their nearest second place challenge. Huge result.
The mission for Jim Crawford’s men was straightforward; ensure they accounted for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro coupled with Italy not losing to Sweden and the playoff spot would be secured at least.
Mission accomplished as the Republic of Ireland secured a three nil and three one win over their respective opposition. Will Smallbone to the fore with impressive performances and goals to boot. Conor Coventry continues to be the fulcrum for the side, reassurance in the middle of the park.
After such an impressive sequence of games, the performance in Ascoli was a disappointment. Italy accounted for the Republic of Ireland four one and some of the goals conceded were very soft concessions.
Players potentially overawed by the occasion and this Italian side were not going to be asked twice to secure their passage to the European Championships automatically. A steep learning curve for the side but one that has got the side to this point.
Israel qualification campaign so far
Israel U21 side advanced as runners up from their group including Germany, Poland, Hungary, Latvia and San Marino. Germany the standout but the second place was far from certain.
The tale of the tape for Israel U21 reads ten games. Six wins, one draw and three losses. Israel scored nineteen goals and conceded ten during this qualification campaign.
Their performances against table topping Germany were good. Both losses saw competitive displays. Israel scored twice away to Germany in a three two loss and lost one nil to the same opponent at home in a tight encounter.
There was notable away wins in Poland, Hungary where Gandelman (attacking midfielder) was a prominent scorer and performer.
The negative result in this group was their away loss to Latvia towards the latter end of the campaign. They lost one nil to a side who were out of the running. A performance which misfired.
Israel U21 concluded their campaign with a routine two nil win over San Marino, an opportunity to give new players some valuable game time. The game over as a contest after fifteen minutes.
The goal scorer spread is an interesting watch. Their full backs and midfield contributed most goals in this campaign. Israel went 5-4-1 formation against Germany and Hungary at home.
Will we see more conservative approach from Israeli manager Alon Hazan? I do not think that the manager is going to change given this formation has served his side so well so far in this campaign.
Liel Abada is the standout player for this squad. He plays with Glasgow Celtic and his pace will pose issues for the Republic of Ireland defence.
Most of the squad are Israeli club based with only Ilay Elmkies (Admira Wacker Modling) and Suf Podgoreanu (Spezia) the other players plying their trade outside of Israel.
A team who are big and physical. They will be compact defensively who will look to keep their defensive shape and hit on the counterattack with pace in midfield and full back areas. They also pose a big attacking set piece threat.
The first leg of this playoff will be held in Tallaght Stadium on September 19th and the return leg in Petah Tikva we presume given that all Israeli U21 games have been held in this venue to big crowds.
Republic of Ireland must ensure that they have a healthy opening leg score going back to Israel. 50/50 contest here given the form of both sides. A massive opportunity awaits the winner.