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Ireland dig deep to foil hosts and seal semi-final berth


Irish players celebrate after their 0-0 draw against Romania in Bucharest last night

Irish players celebrate after their 0-0 draw against Romania in Bucharest last night

Irish players celebrate after their 0-0 draw against Romania in Bucharest last night

IT WASN'T pretty on a balmy Bucharest evening, but it was job done for the Irish in their quest to reach the European Championship semi-finals.

Paul Doolin's side went back to the basics which had helped them progress through six qualifiers over two series of rounds and into the eight-team showpiece.

This was their fourth point from three group matches at the finals, hardly spectacular, but enough to pip Greece to the second qualifying berth for the last four by a single point.

Had the Greeks beaten group leaders Czech Republic in the other game being played simultaneously, Ireland would have needed a victory. But once word filtered through 20 minutes from time that the Czechs had gone ahead, the pressure eased.

Doolin stuck to his pre-match promise of utilising his squad following last Saturday's energy-sapping workout against the Czechs by making two changes.

Aberdeen first-teamer Joe Shaughnessy was drafted into central defence for his first appearance at the finals in place of Derrick Williams, with Connor Smith coming in up front for Bray Wanderers' Conor Murphy, the sole home-based player in the 18-man panel.

Backed by an expectant home crowd inside the compact Berceni Stadium, Romania took the initiative early on, with captain Ionut Nastasie on the right flank their main outlet.

Anthony O'Connor, moved to left-back in order to accommodate Shaughnessy slotting into central defence, was twice left in a spin by the talented Steaua Bucharest winger early on and was relieved to see the first shot flash wide and the second turned around the post by Aaron McCarey.

However, once Ireland settled and Jeff Hendrick got more of the ball in central midfield, the flow of passing which has become their hallmark during their eight-game UEFA campaign was in evidence.

Their first sniff at goal arrived midway through the half when Anthony Forde couldn't get his foot to the ball on the edge of the box after John O'Sullivan set him up with a low cross.

Two more openings were carved out in the run-up to the break, both from corners. A short corner by Sean Murray on 34 minutes teed up Forde for a deep cross and, when his delivery was nodded back across goal by O'Connor, Shaughnessy headed over from eight yards.

Skipper John Egan was on the end of another pinpoint cross seven minutes later, but he failed to get direction on his header.

Ireland are more than just a set-piece team -- though they do make the most of free-kicks and corners.

Eight minutes into the second half, Egan managed to outmuscle Romania's Juventus goalkeeper Laurentiu Branescu in the air from Murray's lofted free into the box, allowing O'Connor to pounce on the loose ball and poke it into the unguarded net.

The celebrations would only last a few seconds as referee Artyom Kuchin, rather than his assistant, adjudged the Blackburn man was in an offside position.


That let-off for the home side would provoke their best spell of pressure.

The attentions of Ireland defender Matt Doherty proved just enough on the hour to distract Sebastian Chitosca as was poised to head home a back-post header and, three minutes later, Cristian Gavra hit the ball off the crossbar and over with his first touch after coming off the bench.

The Irish required fresh legs in attack and Doolin replaced Murphy with Smith to lead the attack for the final half-hour.

O'Sullivan fed fellow substitute Kevin Knight on the left, with 65 minutes on the clock and his low cross had just too much pace for the onrushing Smith to tap in at the far post.

There would still be one last chance for Romania to appease their impatient fans, when Adrian Avramia rose to meet a corner, but Samir Carruthers was there to hack the ball off the line.

A night of high drama -- and one to remember for 18 teenagers.

Ireland -- McCarey (Wolves); Doherty (Wolves), Egan (Sunderland), Shaughnessy (Aberdeen), O'Connor (Blackburn); Murray (Watford), Carruthers (Aston Villa), O'Sullivan (Blackburn), Hendrick (Derby), Forde (Wolves); Murphy (Bray Wanderers). Subs: Knight (unattached) for Murray (55), Smith (Watford) for Murphy (63), Wearen (West Ham) for Carruthers (73)

Romania -- Branescu; Gugu (Ilie 46), Murgogi, Avramia, Remes; Nastasie, Benzar, Stanciu, Amet, Chitosca (Walleth 90+2); Roman (Gavra 62).

Ref -- Referee: A Kuchin (Kaz).

Irish Independent