‘Stand up for the boys in green’ rang around the Stade Pierre-Mouray for every one of the 90 minutes and how Ireland’s followers witnessed something worth their unrelenting support. In a total rejuvenation from such an uninspiring performance against Belgium, Ireland answered Roy Keane’s calls to for a display of passion and delivered a performance which befitting of the passion of their incredible supporters.
Robbie Brady’s header five minutes from time capped a wonderful display to seal Ireland’s progression to the knockout stages in a performance which will go down in Irish football history, just as that famous 1994 win over Italy at Giants Stadium did.
Lille 2016 will be remembered for a dominant, ardent victory in which Ireland never once needed to resort to the ‘win at all costs, foul them if necessary’ advice delivered by Keane in the week, as Martin O’Neill’s men matched the qualifying feat of their noisy neighbours north of the border to seal a date with hosts France in Lyon on Sunday night.
Ireland boss Martin O’Neill made four changes to the side humbled by Belgium, including a defensive overhaul which saw captain John O’Shea and Ciaran Clark replaced at centre back pairing Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh.
James McClean and Daryl Murphy were also recalled, sourcing the pace and power required to support Shane Long who had cut such an isolated figure as the lone striker against Sweden and Belgium, Wes Hoolahan missed out.
With the Azzurri safely through to the round of 16 without having conceded a goal, manager Antonio Conte was able to ring the changes under the closed roof at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, with only three retaining their place in the starting line up.
The heavily-criticised playing surface at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy lived up to Conte’s damning assessment and the incoming Chelsea boss’ his reasoning was clear to see, with several slips in the opening period.
Jeff Hendrick’s footing was sure, though, on nine minutes when the Derby County midfielder let fly with a rasping drive from 25-yards, narrowly missing Salvatore Sirigu’s top left hand corner. Perhaps this was a showing of the ‘balls’ Roy Keane had asked for.
And Ireland continued to grab the first half by the proverbial scruff and their territorial dominance led to a corner on 21 minutes. A trademark out-swinger from Robbie Brady’s left foot was met by Duffy but the Blackburn Rovers man saw his powerful header tipped over the crossbar.
A far cry from the lumbering performance against Belgium, Ireland left the 2006 World Cup winners unable to find any rhythm in the game while O’Neill’s rejuvenated side broke with pace and guile, with Brady and McClean combining down the left flank to force corner after corner as 6’3” Duffy dominated the aerial dules to test the Paris Saint-Germain stopper.
But just before the break Italy forward Ciro Immobile let fly from distance but saw his effort fly just wide as Ireland were almost punished for failing to translate their dominance to the scoreboard, as McClean had a soft penalty shout waved away by referee Ovidiu Haţegan.
An animated Conte appeared far from pleased with his second string’s first half showing and his half time words saw Italy on the front foot after the interval, as Simeone Zaza pivoted effortlessly to connect with a cross from the right, but the Juventus forward saw his effort fly into the grateful arms of Darren Randolph.
But Ireland retained the effervescence from the first half which yielded everything but the elusive goal as Italy found themselves bewildered by the pace and power of the Irish front line.
McClean was instrumental in driving forward with his speed the catalyst for wave after wave of Irish pressure that tested Italy’s resolve to maintain their 100% defensive record at the tournament.
Aiden McGeady was introduced on 70 minutes in a bid to find the invention that would unlock a resilient Italian defence but it was the Azzurri who came closest when substitute Lorenzo Insigne hit the post with a curled effort that looked destined to break Irish hearts.
Hoolahan followed on from the bench and made an instant impact; a tame strike when one-on-one with the keeper was instantly forgotten when the Norwich man delivered an inviting cross from the right which was met with a perfectly timed header by Brady as Ireland clinched the goal they so richly deserved.
In what seemed like the longest five minutes at the tournament so far Ireland were able to hold on and secure victory to seal a reversal from what was such a perilous position to qualification.