How Italy-beating Ireland might now frighten France
The Republic of Ireland made it through to the knockouts by standing toe-to-toe with Italy and earning a famous victory that will go down in folklore alongside the 1994 win over the same foes in New Jersey.
True, this was an Italy side who had not only already gone through, but couldn’t be overhauled from top position. And Antonio Conte took full advantage, citing qualified privilege to make eight changes.
However, no side managed by Conte will ever slope lazily around the field, and the Azzurri-clad protagonists were mostly Champions League-level, while three of the four changes the Irish made brought in Championship players: Derby’s Richard Keogh and Blackburn’s Shane Duffy at centre-back, and Ipswich’s Daryl Murphy (plus West Brom’s James McClean) to add impetus further forward alongside Shane Long.
Only a win would be good enough for the Republic, so Martin O’Neill chose an attacking 4-3-3 and went for it. By half an hour in it was obvious that the sides were well-matched: the pass numbers were almost identical, but the Irish moves were much further forward.
Expert defence witness
This might have been because the much-changed Italians were feeling their way into the game, looking to create new partnership further forward. It could even be that Conte was happy with his side sitting deep, seeing it as defensive practice for his supporting players, ready for games deeper in the tournament.
Certainly the Italians seemed content to defend their area rather than, for instance, 30 yards up the pitch; the positions from which they cleared bears testament to this, as does the curious number of throws Ireland won high on their left flank.
Italy also showed great respect to the Irish aerial threat. Conte’s men defended one first-half free-kick with an extraordinarily high line to protect their area, and on the rare occasion they got a corner they often played it short rather than fire it first-time into the mixer.
However, don’t let that detract from the Irish performance. Marco Tardelli, the Italian World Cup winner and former Ireland assistant, had accused the Irish players of lacking football intelligence, but this was no Jack Charlton-style long-ball throwback.
McClean, Murphy, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady linked up well and played short passes as they sought to pull Italy about. A snapshot on the hour showing the teams’ passes received displays how often Ireland worked the ball into dangerous positions, usually by short interplay.
That said, when Ireland did take the lead in the 85th minute, it was from a ball played into the box. But this was no hit and hope, it was a beautiful curled delivery from sub Wes Hoolahan – instantly making amends for the glorious chance he’d just fluffed when clean through – onto the head of Robbie Brady, whose inventive final-third passing typified the savvy Irish approach.
By adding the skilful creativity of Hoolahan and his traditional first sub Aiden McGeady to the mix, O’Neill kept finding new questions to ask Italy; he was just about to send on Robbie Keane when Brady scored. By the end of the game, Ireland had compiled almost double Italy’s number of final-third passes.
Ireland were commendably calm and creative in overcoming their more illustrious opponents. They will have to do so again on Sunday afternoon in Lyon against France, but they should do so with good cheer.
As yet convincing, the hosts have looked uncertain in attack, requiring late goals to overcome Romania and Albania and not managing to break down an underwhelming Swiss side. Furthermore, questions remain over the French defence, which may yet prove susceptible to a hard-running irritant like Long and the revolving creativity behind him.
If O’Neill holds his nerve and plays a bold hand again, it’s far from fantastical to imagine they might frighten France – and, with England or Iceland thereafter, standing a historic chance of a semi-final spot...