Brady and Cunningham strike to reel in Azzurri
Ireland 2 Italy 2
U-21 European C'ship qualifiers
PLAYERS from the two Manchester giants combined to earn Ireland a fully deserved draw against a strong Italian team at the Showgrounds.
United's Robbie Brady and City's Greg Cunningham both hit second-half goals as Noel King's charges came from from 2-0 down to earn a valuable point against the Group 7 leaders.
With three games remaining, Ireland's feat in taking the first point off the Azzurri in six qualifiers gives them a great chance of claiming the runners-up spot ahead of Turkey, who visit the Showgrounds on August 14.
With the four best second-placed teams across the 10 groups each earning a place in the play-offs for next year's finals in Israel, King insists his team must close the deal in their remaining matches against the Turks, Hungary and the return fixture in Italy.
"It was a very satisfying result and we have given ourselves a great chance of finishing second in the group," said King. "If we can beat Turkey, we will be in a very strong position."
King was full of praise for Brady, who has now scored five goals in his four U-21 games at the Sligo venue.
"Robbie is a guy I would pay to see play any day of the week," said King. "He has the ability the score or create a goal from anywhere."
Ireland got off to a nightmare start. Shane Duffy bundled the nippy Lorenzo Insigne over and, from the resultant free-kick, the Everton defender inadvertently turned Alessandro Florenzi's low delivery past goalkpeeper Ian McLoughlin to give the visitors a third-minute lead.
It looked like the Irish were in for a tough afternoon, as the Italians -- spearheaded by the lively Mattia Destro -- attacked at will over the next 10 minutes.
Twice the in-demand striker forced saves from McLoughlin, while Ciro Immobile was off target with a close-range effort.
Having weathered this storm without conceding a second, the Irish won a succession of free-kicks in good positions as Brady, Aidan White and the tenacious Eunan O'Kane sprang to life.
The Italians always looked dangerous, however, and Destro went close with a snap shot before Immobile scored the visitors' second 11 minutes into the second half.
Insigne's trickery almost forced a third 60 seconds later and Ireland's troubles was compounded as 'keeper McLoughlin was forced off with an injury, to be replaced by Monaghan native Aaron McCarey.
Urged on by a large crowd, Brady -- who spent last season on loan at Hull City -- put the Irish right back into the game with a sweetly struck penalty on 67 minutes after Duffy was bundled over in the box by Destro while attacking Cunningham's free-kick.
Brady then turned provider four minutes later with a brilliantly delivered free-kick, which Cunningham got just enough on to turn the ball into the net.
Rhys Murphy could have nicked the win for Ireland with a swerving shot which Francesco Bardi did well to bat away, before Marco Verrati was sent off in stoppage-time for a cynical foul on White.
IRELAND -- I McLoughlin (MK Dons); J Egan (Sunderland), S Duffy (Everton), N Canavan (Scunthorpe United), G Cunningham (Manchester City); J Hendrick (Derby County), R Towell (Unattached), E O'Kane (Torquay United); R Brady (Manchester United), R Murphy (Unattached), A White (Leeds United). Subs: A McCarey (Wolves) for McLoughlin (59), J Collins (Shrewsbury Town) for Murphy (89).
ITALY -- F Bradi (Livorno); D Santon (Newcastle United), M Capuano (Pescara), L Caldirola (Brescia), A Crescenzi (Bari); A Florenzi (Crotone), M Verratti (Pescara), L Marrone (Juventus), L Insigne (Pescara); M Destro (Siena), C Immobile (Pescara). Subs: A. Paloschi (Chievo) for Destro (73), S El Shaarawy (AC Milan) for Immobile (85) S Romagnoli (Pescara) for Paloschi (90).
REF -- E Hancon (Israel).