Huge blow for Ireland U21s as Lithuanian defeat leaves uphill battle to reach European Championships
Lithuania 3 Ireland 1
Ireland's ambitions of reaching a first-ever Under-21 European Championship are hanging by a thread after losing to basement side Lithuania in Vilnius tonight.
Although Conor Wilkinson drew the Irish level before the break, they conceded again on the stroke of half-time before a third arrived on 73 minutes.
After starting the campaign with three straight victories, defeat to Italy last month and this reverse leaves Noel King's side with an uphill battle to secure a top-two finish.
Unlike his senior counterpart Martin O’Neill, Noel King reported a clean bill of health for the tie but his plans were thrown into disarray just before kick-off when Glen Rea suffered a dead leg in the warm-up and had to be replaced by Shane Griffin in the starting line-up.
Another defender, Jack Connors, lasted only 18 minutes before a hamstring injury forced him off.
By that stage, it was already apparent Deimantas Petravicius represented the biggest threat to Ireland with his pace down the right flank.
The powerful Nottingham Forest winger was their main outlet, giving left-back Connors and, after him, Sean Kavanagh, plenty to contend with.
It wasn’t just senior international Petravicius causing the damage as Lithuania’s 22nd-minute opener testified.
On the counter-attack, Donatas Kazlaukas fed Vykintas Slivka on the left and his first-time cross to the far post was brilliantly headed back across Rogers into the top corner by Lukas Spalvis.
Ireland’s response was impressive and almost instant. Skipper Darragh Lenihan narrowly headed over on 25 minutes before Conor Wilkinson nodded his effort against the crossbar from Jack Byrne’s corner.
The tall striker produced a sublime piece of skill with two minutes to the interval by swivelling and unleashing a volley from 25 yards which Edvinas Gertmonas did well to gather at his near post.
There was nothing the Stade Rennais custodian, also a full cap, could do about Wilkinson’s next effort moments later for the equaliser.
Controlling a left-wing cross from substitute Reece Grego-Cox, he brushed off home captain Justinas Janusevskis and rifled a low strike into the bottom right corner.
Lithuania took less than a minute to regain the lead, with Petravicius at the hub of the move. When he was allowed break down the channel, his cut-back was smashed high into the net by Simonas Stankevicious from 10 yards.
Searching for a second leveller against a side prepared to sit back was a challenge for Ireland, leaving them struggling to create openings.
Callum O’Dowda was denied by Gertmonas three minutes after the restart with a header that was tipped around the post while Kavanagh failed to get proper purchase on his shot after drifting into from the left.
Ireland’s route back became impossible when they gifted their hosts a third with 17 minutes left. Lenihan’s uncharacteristic error left the defence exposed and Donatas Kazlaukas punished the mistake by stroking the ball beyond Rogers.
To deepen their woe, Kavanagh was sent-off in the last minute for a late tackle on Rolandas Baravyykas.
Next up for Ireland is a friendly against Norway on Tuesday in Waterford before their competitive campaign resumes in March at home against top seeds Italy.
LITHUANIA: E Gertmonas; R Baravyykas, J Janusevskis, J Aleksandravicius, L Cerkaukas; K Silkaitis, V Slivka; D Petravicius, S Stankevicious, D Kazlaukas; L Spavlis.
Subs: D Romanovskij for Kazlaukas (89 mins)
IRELAND: D Rogers (Falkirk); S Long (Reading), D Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers), S Griffin (Reading), J Connors (Dagenham); A Browne (Preston NE), J Byrne (SC Cambuur), J Cullen (West Ham Utd); C O’Dowda (Oxford Utd), C Wilkinson (Barnsley), S Kavanagh (Fulham).
Subs: R Grego-Cox (QPR) for Connors (18 mins), D Connolly (Ipswich Town) for Byrne (65 mins), S Maguire (Dundalk) for Wilkinson (83 mins)
Ref: P Ardeleanu (CZE).