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Brave Irish taught harshest of lessons

IF UNDERAGE football is a learning curve, then this Irish team got the lesson of their young lives from Spain in last night's semi-final.

Paul Doolin's charges had batted away the challenges, however stern, thrown at them by some of Europe's stellar underage football nations during the season but this encounter in Chiajna, just outside Bucharest, was completely one-sided.

For all the talk in advance about putting the Spaniards under pressure, Ireland were never allowed operate the pressing style they've become known for.

Once the four-time champions forged ahead on 20 minutes, they never looked back. Even Doolin made a point afterwards of criticising Spain's captain Pablo Sarabia for 'show-boating' in the second half when they were three goals ahead.

Derrick Williams got the nod over Declan Walker to replace the suspended Matt Doherty in the Irish defence. Anthony O'Connor moved across from left-back to the other side to enable the Aston Villa man take up his favoured position on the left.

The Spanish masterclass was on show from early on, while Ireland failed to show any cohesion in a midfield that proved so effective in the group stage.

From the fifth minute, when defender Anthony O'Connor blocked on a goal-ward shot by Juanmi inside the box, it was backs to the wall for Doolin's men.

Skipper John Egan did well to foil a surge by top-scorer Alvaro Morata along the end line into the box and though the Real Madrid ace sustained an injury in the process that required a head bandage, he recovered to lead the line for Spain's purple patch up front.

In a brief respite to the Spanish domination, Samir Carruthers conjured a half-chance at the other end on 12 minutes after Sean Murray's cross from the right was only half cleared. The Villa midfielder's hurried shot skied high over the crossbar.

The Spanish gave Aaron McCarey his first real scare on 20 minutes when Barcelona defender Sergi Gomez struck a long free-kick from 30 yards which flew through a broken wall and clipped the outside of the post.

Ireland were still holding their own but when Gerard Deulofeu switched from the right flank to the opposite wing, the Barcelona maestro made an instant impact with 27 minutes gone.

Playmaker Sarabia sprayed a pass out wide Deulofeu and he skipped past O'Connor before cracking a powerful shot from 20 yards that rose and swerved into the top corner.

McCarey atoned for his own mistake of holding onto the ball for much longer than the six seconds allowed. The resulting indirect free-kick from Sarabia curled over the wall only for the Wolves goalkeeper to tip it around his post.

Arsenal defender Ignasi Miquel provided the Irish with another let-off by glancing his close-range header wide but the incessant pressure yielded another Spain goal five minutes before the break.

There appeared little danger when captain Sarabia, a €3m purchase by Getafe from Real Madrid, exchanged passes with Ruben Pardo midway inside the Ireland half. However, with no opposing player closing him down, Sarabia looked up and found the net from the edge of the area with a low curler.

The walk to the dressing-room at the break might have been even slower for the Irish players had Sarabia's poked volley gone inside rather than a yard outside the post as the whistle loomed.

The Spanish freight train resumed straight from the second half kick-off when they netted a third within 38 seconds. Deulofeu ran down the left flank before picking out Juanmi in the box whose shot hit the net off the crossbar.

It was all too easy for the odds-on favourites but they showed no mercy to an Irish side running out of ideas.

Top scorer Morata was always a threat he punished slack Irish marking by making it 4-0 on 79 minutes by rounding McCarey and tapping home.

To compound Ireland's woes, a harsh penalty decision in the last minute for a handball by O'Connor enabled Real Madrid striker Morata to grab his second and Spain's fifth. They now face Czech Republic in Monday's final.

Ireland -- McCarey (Wolves); O'Connor (Blackburn Rovers), Egan (Sunderland), Shaughnessy (Aberdeen), Williams (Aston Villa); Murray (Watford), Carruthers (Aston Villa), O'Sullivan (Blackburn Rovers), Hendrick (Derby County), Forde (Wolves); Murphy (Bray Wanderers) Subs: Smith (Watford) for Murphy (46 mins), Wearen (West Ham United) for Carruthers (62), Knight (unattached) for Murray (71).

Spain -- Badia (Espanyol); Carvajal (Real Madrid), Gómez (FC Barcelona), Miquel (Arsenal), Aurtenetxe (Athletico Bilbao); Sarabia (Getafe CF), Álex (Real Madrid), Pardo (Real Sociedad); Deulofeu (FC Barcelona); Álvaro Morata (Real Madrid), Juanmi (Malaga). Subs: Gallego (Sporting Gijon) for Sarabia (67), González (Athletico Madrid) for Deulofeu (80), Blázquez (Espanyol) for Carvajal (83).

Ref -- Clément Turpin (FRA).

Irish Independent