Irish boys ready for their Italian job
Sitting proudly on top of their qualifying group for the European Championships, Noel King's Ireland U21 side are not daunted by the prospect of a Italian test in Vicenza this evening.
With three wins and three clean sheets from their opening three games, the most recent a 3-0 defeat of Lithuania in Waterford last week, Ireland head into the clash with Italy (4pm) knowing that another positive result would put them in a strong position to challenge for qualification for the 2017 Euro finals.
Italy holds good memories for this Irish group, not just because the game is a sort of homecoming for Carlo Cudicini, the Italian-born goalkeeping coach with this U21 side, but also from what happened on their last visit.
In September 2012, in the final game of a doomed qualifying campaign, a nine-man Ireland side managed to beat Italy 4-2 away from home, with Sean Murray, Conor Henderson and Aaron Doran (2) on target against a classy-looking Italian side which included AC Milan star Stephan El Shaarawy, currently part of the Italian senior side.
Ireland have never qualified for the finals at U21 level but they've never had a start to a qualifying campaign like this and King hopes this group can see it through.
"They are hungry as individuals and as a group, they would love to qualify for the U21 finals so we have to try and make that happen if we can," said King.
A bonus for King - and potentially for the manager of the senior side - is the success of Dubliner Jack Byrne in Holland, on loan from Manchester City to Cambuur. "It seems like Jack has been around for years but he's still a young player," says King.
"So for him to be playing first team football in the Dutch top division is fantastic, it's a much different level compared to the U21 league in England."