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Opportunity knocks in ‘the biggest game of Ireland’s U-21 history’

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Manager Jim Crawford with Will Smallbone after the match against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Manager Jim Crawford with Will Smallbone after the match against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Manager Jim Crawford with Will Smallbone after the match against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Ireland welcome Montenegro to Tallaght Stadium tonight in “the biggest game in Ireland’s U-21 history,” according to manager Jim Crawford.

Friday’s impressive win over Bosnia and Herzegovina brought Crawford’s side to within a point of Sweden in their Euros qualifying group with a game in hand. 

Will Smallbone’s brace either side of Mipo Odubeko’s cool finish secured Ireland’s third consecutive win. Should they win this evening, it will secure a play-off spot provided Sweden don’t beat Italy on Thursday. Ireland face Italy in the final qualifier next week, in what could also be a winner-takes-all clash to top the group.

Ireland have never qualified for a major tournament at U-21 level, and that record looked set to continue after back-to-back losses against tonight’s opponents and Italy last year. However, stunning wins against Sweden both home and away put Ireland back on track, as they aim to qualify for the Euros in Romania and Georgia next year.

Ireland travelled to Montenegro in October and began the game disastrously, going 2-0 down inside the opening 10 minutes. Mark McGuinness halved the deficit on 75 minutes, but it proved to be a consolation as Ireland suffered their first defeat of the campaign.

Speaking ahead of the crucial game, assistant manager Alan Reynolds admitted Ireland will be out for revenge at Tallaght Stadium.

“It’s actually something that has stayed with us,” Reynolds said. “They’re a good side and have some really good players. They are a counter-attacking team and can be direct at times, but they can also play. They haven’t too much to play for so I would expect that they will try and play a free-flowing game.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina were a big side and Montenegro would be similar. They have key players in the middle of the park and up front. We’re prepared for it all.”

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Brighton striker Evan Ferguson also reflected on October’s defeat to Montenegro and admitted Ireland found it difficult to find their way through the low block. The 17-year-old, who has featured six times in the campaign, also said the home win against Sweden last November was a significant turning point in the campaign.

“It was a hard enough game to get into because they played such a low block,” said Ferguson. “It was hard to get a rhythm. But I feel that at home, where we have our own fans, we’ll be able to get more of the ball and play the way we want to.

“That 1-0 win against Sweden at home lifted the spirits of everyone and gave us the belief that we could go on and do something. I feel like that was the turning point, we feel like we can go on and get something from these qualifiers.”

Oisín McEntee is Ireland’s only injury concern, having sustained a shoulder injury in Friday’s win. Given the tight turnaround, Reynolds added it’s likely there will be some changes in personnel.

“I’d expect there will be because some lads haven’t played for a few weeks,” Reynolds said.

“It’s not like you’re in the middle of the season. I expect there’ll be a few changes to freshen things up. I suppose that’s health and safety as well with injuries they may pick up, so we’ll have a look at that.”

Republic of Ireland U-21 v Montenegro U-21
Live, RTÉ2, 5.0


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