On a day of high drama at UEFA EURO 2016, Robbie Brady’s 85th-minute goal gave the Republic of Ireland the victory against Italy they needed to qualify from Group E and set up a last-16 match with France.
It was no less than Martin O’Neill’s men deserved for a performance full of drive, ambition and no little skill. They put in a relentless effort against an Italy side that were already qualified as group winners – it was only Ireland’s second competitive win against the Azzurri after their famous triumph at the 1994 FIFA World Cup.
Ireland had been quick out of the traps, with Jeff Hendrick soon shimmying into a nice shooting position 25 metres out but his left-footed drive just missed the top corner. Salvatore Sirigu was rooted to the spot, but Gianluigi Buffon’s replacement then did well to tip over Daryl Murphy’s powerful header.
Ireland’s intensity and work-rate was giving Antonio Conte’s much-changed line-up a headache and it was only when Ciro Immobile let fly two minutes before the break that Italy first showed the threat they possessed.
Ireland had a penalty appeal turned down before Italy came again, Simone Zaza volleying narrowly over. The white and green shirts kept coming but it was a blue one that went closest next, substitute Lorenzo Insigne curling a shot off the post.
Then, with seven minutes left, came the chance Ireland thought may be their last as Wes Hoolahan fired straight at Sirigu with the goal at his mercy.
Just over 60 seconds later, though, it was Hoolahan’s pinpoint cross that met a marauding Brady’s head to send the vast bank of Ireland fans into raptures.
Man of the Match: Robbie Brady
Brady was fantastic throughout and gambled well for that late header to take his country through. He created three chances alongside his goal and produced eight crosses. Twenty-one of his 34 completed passes came in the attacking third as the wide player moved up 85 places to 33rd overall in the Barometer.
A deserved victory
The ambition that has marked Ireland’s approach in this tournament – one below-par 45 minutes against Belgium aside – has carried them into the last 16 and now they face France. O’Neill’s side will not change their outlook against the hosts and nor should they, but the team may change again just to keep players fresh as Ireland need to play with that high intensity that has marked their campaign so far.
The talking point before, during and after the game among the Italian media and public was the changes made to a side already through as group winners. Italy struggled to match the Irish approach and seemed to miss the steady, calming influence of Daniele De Rossi.
The first team will be fully reinstalled against Spain, though, and maybe Conte’s resting of some of his key players will bear fruit in the long run.