Robbie Brady's late header sends the Republic of Ireland through
Published 22/06/2016 | 23:41
Robbie Brady rekindled memories of 1994 when he headed the Republic of Ireland into a dramatic 1-0 victory over Italy to book a dream Euro 2016 showdown with hosts France.
Brady struck with just five minutes remaining to serve up a repeat of the famous night at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey 22 years ago when Jack Charlton's men humbled the Italians.
It was no more than Ireland deserved after dominating against the much-changed Group E winners, and they might have won even more comfortably had Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan awarded what looked like a clear penalty for Federico Bernardeschi's challenge on James McClean as the first half drew to a close.
On a glorious night under the roof at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, a first win at the Euros since they beat England in 1988 and a first at a major tournament since they saw off Saudi Arabia at the 2002 World Cup finals wrote a new chapter in Irish football history to the clear delight of management duo Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane.
Both men had urged their players not to die wondering in the run-up to a game they knew they simply had to win if they were to get out of the group and having shuffled the pack to add brawn in the shape of central defenders Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh and striker Daryl Murphy and the pace of winger McClean, their intention was clear.
For all an Italy side featuring eight changes from the one which started against Sweden at the weekend looked confident in possession, it was the Republic who made most of the running, and the fact that they did not return to the dressing room at half-time with a lead was something of a travesty.
Midfielder Jeff Hendrick, back to the kind of form which saw him terrorise Sweden earlier in the competition, came within inches of the opening goal with a rising ninth-minute piledriver which flew inches wide.
Murphy went just as close 12 minutes later when he met Brady's corner with a powerful header which goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu tipped over, and Duffy headed wide at the back post from another Brady cross with striker Shane Long perhaps better placed behind him.
The game thundered towards the interval at break-neck speed and Ireland keeper Darren Randolph, who did not have a first-half save to make, would have done had Ciro Immobile's 43rd-minute snapshot been a foot closer to his right-hand post.
But the half ended in controversy when McClean appeared to be barged to the ground inside the penalty area by Bernardeschi, only to see Mr Hategan wave away his appeals.
Fuelled further by a sense of injustice, Ireland returned knowing time was running out fast and with O'Neill kicking every ball on the touchline, the tension mounted as the minutes ticked away.
They knew they had to throw everything they had at Italy and they were always likely to leave space in behind as they pressed, and they were served with a 53rd-minute warning when striker Simone Zaza volleyed just over from Mattia de Sciglio's left-wing cross.
But Ireland were relentless in their pursuit of the goal they craved and skipper Seamus Coleman was unfortunate to see his goal-bound 57th-minute effort catch defender Angelo Ogbonna's heel and run safe.
Hendrick dragged a 63rd-minute effort harmlessly wide after being set up by Murphy and Duffy scuffed another off target from all of 35 yards as the bodies and minds started to tire.
Their chance looked to have gone when substitute Wes Hoolahan passed up a chance to give them the lead with six minutes remaining, shooting straight at Sirigu when clean through on goal.
But he made amends within seconds when he teased the ball over the top of the Italian defence and Brady got their before Sirigu and headed past him to spark delirious celebrations.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
Jimmy Bullard @jimmybullard
What have I just seen! Big miss then goooooooallllll get in! Cmon Ireland #ITAIRL
Darren Randolph: 6 (out of 10)
Seamus Coleman (Capt): 6
Shane Duffy: 7
Richard Keogh: 6
Stephen Ward: 6
Jeff Hendrick: 7
James McCarthy (Hoolahan, 77 mins): 6
Robbie Brady: 9
James McClean: 8
Daryl Murphy (McGeady, 70 mins): 6
Shane Long (Quinn, 90 mins): 6
Aiden McGeady: 6
Wes Hoolahan: 6
Stephen Quinn: n/a
In a field where there were 14 contenders, Brady shaded it not just with his goal, but for the boundless energy which kept his side moving forward until the death.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
No competition - Wes Hoolahan's cross was inch-perfect, Brady's run immaculately-timed and his header gave goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu no chance.
VIEW FROM THE BENCH
Martin O'Neill could hardly have been more proud of his players as they took the game to Italy from the first whistle to the last and deserved everything they got. Antonio Conte was left knowing a little more about his understudies than he might have wanted to discover.
MOAN OF THE MATCH
Quite what Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan saw when James McClean was sent sprawling inside the penalty area by Federico Bernardeschi on the stroke of half-time only he knows, but it was not what most other people at the Stade Pierre Mauroy saw.
WHO'S UP NEXT
France v Republic of Ireland, Sunday June 26, 2pm (Stade de Lyon, Lyon)
Match-winner Brady admitted it was a dream come true for him personally.
"I am lost for words, emotional. It is unbelievable," he told ITV.
"I grew up waiting to play on this stage since I was a little kid, so to go and do it in front of my family is the best feeling in the world.
"What a moment for everyone involved. We said we were going to do a job for everyone out here and we did it, we made history."
Midfielder James McClean was also emotional afterwards.
"You can't put it into words. The passion; there are grown men crying with complete love for a country. It is quite remarkable," he said.
"We knew it was win or bust and we gave it everything and we left nothing on the field.
"It is my best night on a football field, hands down."