Ireland rattle Brazil-bound Italians with impressive display in goalless draw
AFTER a deflating couple of days building up to the seemingly inevitable departure of Roy Keane, football provided a welcome and uplifting distraction for Irish fans at Craven Cottage.
The fifth match of Martin O'Neill's tenure produced by far the best performance. Certainly, the draw with the ninth ranked team in the world was the least they deserved and, on another night, sharper finishing would have secured a surprise victory over Brazilian bound opposition that admittedly have bigger things on their mind.
Keane is still expected to become the new manager of Celtic, so Ireland may finish the end of the summer tour without their assistant boss. Clarity is anticipated between now and Wednesday's flight to America and the feeling remains that the Corkman is on the way out.
However, it is the quality of the players that will ultimately have the biggest say in the Euro 2016 campaign and, in that regard, this was an encouraging 90 minutes for O'Neill as some fringe players laid down a marker for greater involvement.
The Irish build-up to this lively Fulham get-to-gether was dominated by the prospect of being a man down. In Italy, the aftermath will follow the same theme.
After starting the match on top, with Claudio Marchisio forcing an excellent stop from David Forde, their gallop was halted by a clumsy touch and tackle from Alex Pearce on AC Milan's Riccardo Montolivo that ended his World Cup dream after it was confirmed that he suffered a broken leg.
After a lengthy stoppage, the experienced midfielder – the Italian skipper for the night – tried to soldier on before collapsing and realising he was in real difficulty. He will go for an X-ray on a suspected broken tibia but the Italians fear the worst.
Cesare Prandelli has yet to cut down his 30 man squad to the regulation FIFA 23 and was using this game to make a final call. Losing a valued member made this a disastrous exercise regardless of the result.
With the Italians understandably appearing a little shell shocked, Ireland responded with an impressive spell where a midfield that was pressed back in the early stages grew in confidence. David Meyler and the sprightly Jeff Hendrick began to impose and combined well with Wes Hoolahan who was again deployed between midfield and attack.Watched by former assistant Marco Tardelli, a key member of a regime that practically ignored him until the final months, he shone again.
His fellow Norwich outcast Anthony Pilkington, picked ahead of James McClean, rotated flanks with the busy Aiden McGeady as Ireland hassled and harried their unsettled opponents. Chances were the consequence, with Pilkington's free pushed to safety by Salvatore Sirigu following a Hendrick break and then displaying nifty footwork in the area before a shot was blocked to safety.
Full-backs Stephen Ward and Seamus Coleman then got in on the act with the former deserving better from a daisycutting cross that just wasn't anticipated by the inrushing attackers.
The best chance was brought about by Hendrick's graft, with the Dubliner seizing possession and releasing Aiden McGeady who skipped around Gabriel Paletta and teased in a cross that the unmarked Shane Long failed to nod past the sprawling Sirigu; a bit of downward power was lacking from his header.
Italy did finish the half strongly, with a Ciro Immobile attempt short of the power to find a way past Forde, but they emerged in tardy form that black-shirted Ireland really should have punished. Three openings were forged within five minutes, with Long culpable of a poor pass when McGeady was free and then a weak shot after Hoolahan dispossessed the casual Thiago Motta. Pilkington, putting in a strong audition, then swung a right footer narrowly wide.
That profligate spell was always going to prompt difficulty and as Prandelli steadily sent in some of his bigger guns, with Antonio Cassano and Daniele De Rossi warmly received, and the favourites probed.
Immobile made way for Cassano just after having a goal correctly chalked off before offside, and the new man was central to move that culminated with Marchisio drilling the ball straight at the grateful Forde. The Irish defence, marshalled by the excellent John O'Shea, stood firm and withstood the pressure.
As the clock ticked down, O'Neill's men created one last shot at glory with a pair of subs prominent as McClean's cross found Stephen Quinn who smashed the ball off the underside of the crossbar and then teed the rebound up for a McGeady shot that Sirigu stopped.
O'Neill was visibly exasperated, but this night was a positive step even if his number two is headed in another direction.
Italy: Sirigu, Darmian [Abate 88], Paletta, Bonucci, De Sciglio; Motta [De Rossi 62], Marchisio, Montolivo [Aquilani 15; Parolo 38]; Verratti; Immobile [Cassano 56], Rossi [Cerci 71]
Ireland: Forde, Coleman, O'Shea, Pearce, Ward; Hendrick, Meyler [Green 85]; McGeady, Hoolahan [Quinn 67], Pilkington [McClean 58]; Long [Cox 73]
Referee: Michael Oliver [England]