Donnellan's late winner keeps Irish dream alive
Ireland 1 Azerbaijan 0
Ireland were seconds from disaster at Tallaght Stadium when an old-fashioned set-piece kept their European U-21 Championship ambitions on the right track.
The clock had ticked into the 99th minute when a close-range effort from Shaun Donnellan broke the resistance of an Azerbaijan side that had come to Dublin with a plan that looked to be about taking a point.
Ironically enough, they were broken by an extension of the five minutes of added time that came from a genuine injury.
They had previously run down the clock with a healthy dose of gamesmanship, but a foul on the lively Olamide Shodipo forced a free that the bright Ryan Manning sent into the area with the Yeovil man doing enough to get the ball over the line after a header from Ronan Hale came back off the post.
Declan Rice led the celebrations in what could be his final match at this level, although Noel King might have to ask the watching Martin O'Neill for a favour in the autumn as this campaign reaches a climax. Ireland are now three points behind Germany with a game in hand. "The group is in our hands now," said King.
The man of the moment suggested afterwards that he would be open to such a compromise. "We're all looking to Italy in 2019, that's where we want to go," said Rice.
"No Irish team has qualified before and we want to be the first team to do it. I think it's important that I keep playing international football, no matter what level it is."
O'Neill would certainly have empathised with the U-21 manager's predicament as Ireland struggled to find gaps for long periods.
Rice's emergence is good news for Irish football, and he was decent on his return to this age group. Manning and Josh Cullen were tidy too. That will not solve the biggest concern going forward which is goalscoring prowess.
There was an absence of subtlety and cutting edge in the final third here that would have been familiar to regular senior team observers. Set-pieces saved the day again.
Ireland made life difficult for themselves against an Azeri side that had conceded a total of 21 in their previous six outings, and it was tough going at times for a crowd at Tallaght Stadium which evidently exceeded expectations with an extra portion of the West Stand opened as kick-off approached.
O'Neill and Roy Keane were present, and Rice's father Sean arrived with Mark O'Toole, the FAI talent spotter who has played a bigger role than anybody in securing the West Ham starlet's commitment to Ireland.
Indeed, the Irish team that kicked off the game told a story of recruitment rather than development.
Just three members of the starting XI were born in the FAI's jurisdiction. Derry City's Ronan Curtis was born in London but did grow up in Donegal.
He impressed with his direct running in a first half that was devoid of incident. Another League of Ireland graduate, Manning, produced the only shot of note before the interval with the Galway-produced QPR player stinging the palms of Kamram Ibrahimov.
Rice's quality was apparent paired up in midfield with clubmate Cullen, yet Ireland were unable to impose into opposition territory.
They tried to step it up from a restart and had a penalty shout controversially waved away when Jake Mulraney went down as he prepared to shoot. He was duly replaced by Shodipo as King shuffled his pack.
Manning threatened with a set-piece, but Ireland failed to build on it and the 1,645 crowd largely fell quiet again. Rice admitted to feeling a bit of pressure to deliver for his new followers. "I wanted to give the fans something for coming to the game," he said.
King was happy with the contribution of his highest profile player, but this game was about the team effort.
"Maybe there was an expectation that he would be a Messi because of what he's done, but Declan is a terrific lad and he acquitted himself excellently."
Ireland's struggle was emphasised by the actual number ten, Manning, falling deeper next to Rice in an attempt to instigate something.
It meant spells where Ireland were slow to get bodies forward to help central striker Reece Grego-Cox who has performed well in this campaign but did join National League side Woking in January following his release from QPR.
That contrast with Rice's situation highlights how the core of this group are still trying to make their way in the men's game.
Shodipo was lively, a player that has also been forced to leave QPR - albeit on loan - to gain experience with Colchester. In-form Derryman Hale was sent in to support Grego-Cox. They were both crucial in the tense climax, with Shodipo Ireland's brightest spark.
Opposition sub Ilkin Muradov had threatened to nab a shock win with a run and shot that grazed the crossbar.
But after that, blue shirts retreated to base with Manning functioning as quarterback with centre-halves Donnellan and Ryan Sweeney forward at every opportunity.
At the death, their presence made sure that pressure paid off. "When you do that, you have to believe anything is possible," said King.
Ireland U21 - O'Hara, Whelan, Sweeney, Donnellan, Kane (Hale 82); Rice, Cullen; Mulraney (Shodipo 57), Manning, Curtis (Quigley 89); Grego-Cox.
Azerbaijan U21 - Ibrahimov, Krivotsyuk, Sarkarov, Mustafazade, Tashgin; Hajiyev, Aliyev; Koekcue (Shahverdiyev 58), Nasirov (Muradov 65), Madatov; Sheydaev (Buludov 86).
Ref - F Glova (Slovakia)
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