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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Let's go beat the French

Brady goal the icing on the cake as Ireland see off Italy to book last 16 date in Lyons

Ireland’s Shane Long celebrates after Robbie Brady scored against Italy in Lille last night.
Ireland’s Shane Long celebrates after Robbie Brady scored against Italy in Lille last night.
Ireland players celebrate after Robbie Brady scored the winning goal against Italy in Lille last night. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile

All doubts removed, all sins forgiven. Now let's go and beat France.

Martin O'Neill has pulled off the result to top all results and written a glorious new chapter in the history of Irish football

Given the resources he is working with and the desperate, depressing slump which allowed Belgium to score three without reply, this may well be the best ever.

Italy put to the sword and in such an emphatic fashion - who knows where this adventure will lead now.

In an immediate sense, it will lead to Lyon on Sunday and a clash with host nation France, a collision which will light up both countries.

But for the long term, this marks a huge shift. The sterility of Giovanni Trapattoni's days has been wiped away.

It was truly remarkably performance, jam-packed with pace, passion and bundles of skill but for so long, there was no sign of a goal and we wondered.

And then came Wessi.

Hoolahan, a late sub and who had just missed an absolute open goal a few seconds earlier, played a peach of a ball into the path of Robbie Brady, who flicked a header to the back of the net and the dam burst.

O'Neill produced a team selection which nobody predicted and Brady was at the heart of it from the start and at the finish.

John O'Shea and Ciaran Clark paid the price for the Belgian collapse and further up the field, Hoolahan and Glenn Whelan were dropped to give Robbie Brady the playmaker's role and James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick the engine room to look after.

It was brave, focusing on creativity and signalled O'Neill's intent.

The first sight of the pitch told us all we need to know about UEFA's organisational shortcomings. A couple of thousand fans stranded outside the ground before the kick-off told us more.

Any League of Ireland groundsman would be ashamed to present a pitch in that condition and while the players slid and carved furrows in the turf in the early moments, there was an obvious concern for their health.

Those early blows showed exactly what O'Neill wanted from his players. He spoke a great deal about energy in his pre-match press conference and Ireland exploded out of the blocks.

Clattered

Coleman clattered into Federico Bernardeschi in the second minute and lifted him into the air with the impact. Moments later, Hendrick left an impression, literally, on Alessandro Fiorenzi. Both men were clearly channelling Roy Keane.

The intensity and tempo pushed the Italians back and with Brady pulling the strings, gaps appeared.

Hendrick found the first one with a long ranger which went inches wide and Brady's in-swinging corner from the right teed up Shane Duffy for his first attempt on goal in the 23rd minute but Salvatore Sirigu threw himself into the air to tip a fine header over the bar.

This was dynamic, front- foot football from Ireland, led by Hendrick, back in the form which was so eye-catching against Sweden and prompted by Brady, who drove forward at every opportunity and kept the Italian defence on edge with a series of sharp set-piece deliveries.

Antonio Conte's eight changes left them ill-equipped to cope but Italians live and breathe to defend for their lives.

They tackled, scrambled and threw themselves around their own penalty area as wave after wave of Irish pressure broke against the penalty area. It was just enough to keep the scoreline blank.

At the other end, Ciro Immobile registered Italy's only real chance of the first-half with a dipping shot from 25 yards.

It was a scary moment but the only one and within a couple of minutes, Italy were under siege again.

Heart-stopping stuff and the only thing that was missing was an Irish goal. They were outpassing and outplaying Italy and everyone in the ground felt that the magic moment had arrived when Andrea Barzagli bundled James McClean over in the box.

It was a clear penalty, as clear as the Belgian assault on Long in Bordeaux, but Rumanian referee Ovidiu Haţegan was unmoved. Daylight robbery.

Conte must have worked hard at the break to bring some order to his team because Italy came out for the second-half and immediately tried to slow the game down.

It was a brief revival because Ireland kept up the pressure and soon reasserted complete dominance. The Italians retreated into their defensive shape and just soaked it up.

Time to look to the bench for O'Neill and in the 70th minute he sent Aiden McGeady in for Daryl Murphy. Five minutes later, Hoolahan stepped in and now all O'Neill's cards were on the table.

Italy drove forward with substitute Lorenzo Insigne, on for Immobile and his strike whacked off the right upright. Disaster avoided but only just and with Irish players looking increasingly tired, Italy moved out of their half for the first time in the game and chased a winner.

But Hoolahan, showing remarkable mental strength after he was put through by McGeady and fluffled his shot with just the 'keeper to beat, found the pass that won the match and gave Brady his chance to claim a place in history.

Euro 2016 Group E: Ireland 1 Italy 0

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