Much-changed Ireland side seal last-four clash with Brazil after nail-biting victory
Ireland U-21 1 Bahrain U-21 0
Fortune favoured the brave for Stephen Kenny yesterday as his necessity to rotate didn't prevent his Ireland U-21 side clinching a Toulon Tournament semi-final meeting with Brazil.
Despite Ireland needing three points against Bahrain to be sure of progressing from their group, the Ireland boss rested some of his key players.
Conor Masterson was left out of central defence, as was playmaker Conor Coventry from midfield. Adam Idah, scorer of four goals in Kenny's three previous matches at the helm, was also benched.
In the dead heat of an afternoon kick-off in southern France, fatigue levels were at the forefront of Kenny's mind.
He had observed with envy how his potential semi-final opponents on Wednesday, Brazil and Japan, enjoyed the luxury of overhauling their selections in the final game.
The Ireland boss couldn't afford to experiment to that extent, but was aware that his tinkering could backfire.
That was very much a possibility during a second half Ireland shouldn't have been worrying about conceding in.
Deservedly ahead through Connor Ronan's deflected free-kick on 33 minutes, Josh Barrett won a penalty three minutes later.
If it was converted, doubling the interval lead, Kenny was ready to expand his workload exercise.
Instead, the spot-kick from captain Jayson Molumby was tame, enabling Ammar Ahmed to get a hand on the effort. Kenny had his head in his hands when Barrett sliced the rebound wide.
Rather than extending their winning margin in the second half, diminishing energy levels in the Ireland side changed the dynamic.
Gone was the slick passing evident in the win over China and draw against group favourites Mexico.
Ireland's momentum waned and their limited opponents sensed the opportunity of nicking a first point of the tournament.
Only a brilliant save on the hour by Liverpool's Caoimhin Kelleher from Ahmed Sanad's close-range shot avoided an upset.
Kenny's risk eventually paid off, yet not without a couple of nervy moments against the bottom side in the group.
"It was an ambitious strategy to leave out the players but I had to take into account them playing three matches in six days," said Kenny.
"Had we scored the penalty, then I would have taken off Jayson Molumby and Conor Coventry to give them a rest for Wednesday.
"It was a frustrating game because the missed penalty meant we were never comfortable.
"Any less than three points and we were out of the competition. Although Bahrain only had one real chance, we suffered from missing our own opportunities."
Wednesday's challenge will be the ultimate test, a standard Ireland players wouldn't have tackled previously along their international careers. Brazil scored 13 goals in the group without conceding any, including a 4-0 thumping of hosts France.
Kenny's mindset is one of opportunity, not fear. Ireland are the only European team remaining at the 12-nation tournament, outlasting England, Portugal and the French. They have every intention of continuing the journey to Sunday's final.
"What other tournament, apart from a World Cup, would our players get that experience of facing teams from Asia and South America," added Kenny with a smile.
"My assistants Keith Andrews and Jim Crawford went to watch Brazil play on Saturday night. As qualification was already guaranteed, they changed the entire team but still beat Qatar 5-0.
"We'll look forward to facing Brazil. Once again, we've a short turnaround to get prepared but we've really enjoyed the experience of this tournament so far."
IRELAND - C Kelleher (Liverpool); L O'Connor (Manchester United), D O'Shea (West Brom), L Scales (UCD), D Leahy (Bohemians); J Molumby (Brighton), J Knight (Derby County); Z Elbouzedi (Waterford), C Ronan (Wolves), J Barrett (Reading); A Connolly (Brighton). Subs: A Idah (Norwich City) for Elbouzedi (inj, 28), S Power (Norwich City) for Barrett (67), J Taylor (Barnet) for Ronan (78).
BAHRAIN - A Ahmed; M Alshamsi, H Alkhayyat, A Bughammar, A Mohamed; A Sanad, A Alasfoor (E Mohsen 78), M Marhoon, A Alshirah; A Alsherooqi (A Ahmedi 46), M Hardan.
Ref - M Gonzalez Alveal (Chile).