Match Report: Brady pounces to make a Lille piece of history
Italy 0 Ireland 1
Published 23/06/2016 | 02:30
This is the picture for the postcard. Ireland won't be coming home just yet.
With the roof over their head adding humidity to stifling pressure, Martin O'Neill's side opened a window to their future.
They booked a round of 16 showdown with France by delivering the result that their performance deserved on an extraordinary night in Lille.
Fittingly, it was the calm head of Robbie Brady that dispatched the winner with six minutes remaining.
His composure was in keeping with the contribution of the youngsters that inspired the victory - with a little bit of help from the brilliance of late substitute Wes Hoolahan who bounced back from an agonising miss, just 41 seconds earlier, to deliver the perfect assist.
The famous success prolongs this adventure until at least this weekend where a tantalising Sunday showdown with the hosts in Lyon lies in prospect after the late drama ensured a third place qualifying finish.
That round of 16 tie will be the first meeting since the hand of Henry, and there's a fair chance that line of discussion will dominate the build-up.
From the perspective of the jubilant O'Neill, this group is determined to make their own history.
The fact that Italy had already qualified before this encounter was a lucky break, but he can be thrilled with the fine performance in a tense encounter where everything was on the line.
Vindication is a word the Irish boss likes to use on a good day and this outcome provided it in spades.
"I think I'm reasonably good at my job," he smiled afterwards, after admitting that he'd never been as proud of a side he'd managed during his lengthy career.
He will also earn deserved praise after making adjustments that would have put him under serious scrutiny if this had ended badly.
His plan worked on an evening where Ireland's spirit carried them to the brink of glory and changes from the sideline eventually gave them the impetus to cross the threshold.
The 64-year-old kept faith with James McCarthy in his preferred position ahead of Glenn Whelan and he was excellent until he made way for Hoolahan with 15 minutes remaining.
He dropped centre halves Ciaran Clark and John O'Shea and drafted in Richard Keogh and competitive debutant Shane Duffy who grew into the occasion.
"You'd have thought Duffy was playing his 35th international game," he enthused afterwards. And he brought in Daryl Murphy to run himself into the ground for over an hour and lay the foundations for what came afterwards.
That call was another throwback to the victories over Germany and Bosnia that booked this trip. From the outset, it was promising.
"The whole team was terrific," said O'Neill, "It would be hard to find a weakness. There wasn't a player that didn't perform heroically."
McCarthy looked much happier as the defensive shield, similar to the display over Germany last October. He was supported by Brady and Jeff Hendrick in a technically comfortable midfield.
That said, it was the direct route to Murphy that was the main avenue of attack in an attempt to move play up the park and then hope to make the best from the scraps.
Seamus Coleman, James McClean and Hendrick flew into early tackles to lift the Irish dominated crowd.
An Italian side with eight changes from their regular selection looked rattled. Antonio Conte, their manager, paced the sideline furiously and later claimed that the dreadful surface, which will be replaced tomorrow, suited the opposition better.
That wasn't always the case and there was some early nerves at the back, particularly for Duffy who miscued a backpass out for a corner.
But there was a spell just shy of the half hour mark where Keogh was on the ball inside the Italian half as the white shirts attempted to press on.
Hendrick did threaten with an early thunderbolt that fizzed wide, yet the Irish response to every free kick within crossing range was to pile bodies forward into the area so it was no surprise that the clearest opportunity to break the deadlock came from a set piece with stand-in stopper Salvatore Sirigu clawing away Murphy's header from a Brady corner.
Italy did serve a couple of warnings with Keogh making one last ditch clearance and Ciro Immobile threatening from the edge of the box.
The talking point came before the interval, however, when the persistent McClean was clumsily bundled over by Federico Bernardeschi as he entered the penalty area.
Replays strengthened the case for a spot kick. The Romanian official, who had earlier booked Shane Long for verbals with Sirigu, waved away appeals.
It didn't deflate Ireland.
"There was a real disappointment in the dressing room for a moment or two," said O'Neill, "But we actually took heart from it."
They resumed to pressurise an Italian outfit that was struggling further up the park yet they gave little away in their own box before the hour mark aside from a stray pass that invited Coleman forward for a blocked shot.
O'Neill had to do something with 20 minutes remaining as the ideas well ran dry.
He turned to McGeady instead of the valiant Murphy with Long switched inside. Irish shirts swarmed forward for every Italian kick-out in an attempt to wrestle possession. The Glaswegian fired an exocet over the bar as the Italians stood off.
With 15 minutes to go, O'Neill sent for Hoolahan in place of McCarthy and, almost immediately, there was evidence of what the latter had offered to proceedings as sub Lorenzo Insigne arrowed into the space in front of the Irish defence to curl a right footer off the post.
Italy sensed opportunity with Ireland left with no option but to go for broke and finding it hard to track back following the efforts of their earlier exertions in the sapping conditions.
They have specialised in late goals under O'Neill, though, and they plugged away in search of a golden moment.
It looked like Hoolahan had squandered it when he capitalised on Italian messing to race through on Sirigu but with time to pick his spot, he found the PSG netminder's midriff.
With Robbie Keane stripped to come on, a frustrated bench wondered if that was the end of this journey.
There was another twist. Ireland broke and worked the ball to McGeady who fed Hoolahan. He gathered himself to swing in the ideal delivery that Brady glanced past the advancing Sirigu. Pandemonium ensued.
"Wes might have lost his head in the dressing room after his miss," joked O'Neill, "I'm delighted for him."
Italy roused themselves in search of a party-pooping equaliser as Keane returned to the bench and Stephen Quinn came on to run down the clock.
There was premature celebration in the dying seconds as a whistle was misunderstood. Coleman, who revelled with the armband, had to run back onto the pitch.
Seconds later, the game was up. They celebrated like a group that understood exactly what they had achieved.