Ireland U-21 manager Jim Crawford said that his side won’t settle for second place and are fully focused on beating Italy tomorrow to qualify for a first-ever European Championship.
Apart from Oisin McEntee’s absence, Ireland have a clean bill of health going into the crunch qualifier. Italy need a draw to top the group, while only a win will do for Ireland, who also have a safety net of a play-off in September should they drop points tomorrow.
“It's going to be a hell of a game,” said Crawford.
“What a position to be in, to go here where we know that we can win and we'll top the group, which would be an unbelievable achievement. It's going to be a real challenge because Italy are the best team in the group by a distance.
"You want to qualify for finals so these players can put their wits against the best players in Europe. That's how you'll develop. It's a huge stage for them. I think it would be used as a springboard for them to really develop and help them in their careers.”
Since a 2-0 defeat to Italy in November, Ireland have won four games on the bounce. Back-to-back victories against Sweden were followed by home wins against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro, propelling Ireland to second in the group.
Italy’s 1-1 draw with Sweden on Thursday was met with delight by Crawford, as his side secured second place and a play-off spot. Ireland are clear they won't settle for runners-up though, with the manager adding that revenge is an extra motivation in Ascoli tomorrow.
“They're the top seeds in the group and one of the top teams in Europe,” said Crawford.
“They're probably kicking themselves after last Thursday, how they haven't won the group up to now. They're favourites, but it's going to be a big game. The players know what's at stake. It’s given us a great opportunity now to go and seek revenge.”
Ireland U-21 captain Conor Coventry has been integral to the team’s success. The West Ham midfielder has started every qualifier and scored two vital goals early on in the campaign. The 22-year-old said that this Ireland side do not want to be remembered as the nearly men.
“We don't want to be a team that nearly did it, we want to qualify," said Coventry.
“We're not coming here to have a good game or to practise anything for a play-off, we're coming here to win. We'd love to do it on Tuesday, that's the aim. They're top so the pressure is on them. We have nothing to lose.
“It's more to lose for them, to lose that top spot. Whereas we can’t drop out of the playoffs. So the pressure is on them really, there’s no pressure on us. We’ll see how that affects them.”