NOEL KING'S Ireland under-21s battled from two goals down to gain a priceless point against Italy that keeps them in the hunt for the European Championships in Israel next summer.
Ireland, trailing 2-0 after conceding a Shane Duffy own goal and a Ciro Immobile strike, netted a brace of goals in the space of four minutes to resurrect their qualification hopes at the Showgrounds in Sligo.
With three qualifiers remaining, Ireland’s feat in taking the first point off the Azzurri in six games puts them in a commanding position to secure a runner-up spot.
As the four best second-placed teams across the 10 groups proceed to a play-off for next year’s finals in Israel, King insists his team must close the deal in the remaining matches against Turkey, Hungary and the return fixture in Italy.
“I think five points would be enough to get a play-off, starting with victory over Turkey at home in August,” he said. “We’ve got two games in hand over Turkey and they finish their campaign against us here in Sligo needing some points to stay in |contention.
“The lads will take a lot of positives from this performance.
“We had to keep fighting and, in fairness to the lads, they didn’t surrender. Your worry is that when you go to push the game, you might concede three or four but we had to go for it.
“We were 2-0 down against a team that was unbeaten, so you virtually think it’s gone. That’s what your head is saying but the other half of you is saying ‘you can’t let it go’. You can talk about their teamwork, their comradeship, and
togetherness. You don’t get something special against Italy unless there is something special in your dressing room.”
Duffy handed the Italians the initiative early on, turning a free-kick he had conceded into his own net.
Immobile was becoming increasingly dangerous for the Italians and could have doubled their advantage before the break but the striker didn’t have to wait long after the break to hit the onion sack. The striker produced a rasping shot to beat McLoughlin in the Irish goal 10 minutes into the second half and things were looking bleak for Ireland.
Ireland needed a bit of luck to haul themselves back into proceedings and Italian defender Mattia Destro provided it by handling the ball inside his area allowing Robbie Brady to slot home the resulting penalty.
Brady turned provider for Ireland’s equaliser as Greg Cunningham somehow managed to bundle home his free-kick. Ireland were now in the ascendancy and Italy were rocked by another blow as Marco Veratti was harshly given a red card for a foul on Aidan White.
Rhys Murphy could have nicked all three points for Ireland with a swerved shot which Francesco Bardi did well to bat away but that was as close as they got to a winner.
Next up for King’s charges are Turkey at home on August 14 with both sides vying for that coveted runner-up spot in Group 7.