Stephen Kenny's Ireland Under-21s begin Toulon Tournament in fine style with convincing win over China
Group C: Ireland 4 China 1
Stephen Kenny’s Ireland Under-21's got their Toulon Tournament campaign off to a flyer by sweeping past China at Stade de Lattre in Aubagne on Monday afternoon.
Zack Elbouzedi opened the scoring in roasting conditions after just 33 seconds, followed by a second from Aaron Connolly four minutes later.
Although Yang Li halved the arrears on 18 minutes, a couple of second-half penalties from Adam Idah killed off any comeback hopes for the Asians.
With only one injury-enforced absence heading into the tournament, Kenny kept faith with the other ten players that recorded a resounding 3-0 victory over Luxembourg in March. The vacancy left by Neil Farrugia’s hamstring trouble was filled by Connolly.
Kenny's plea to hit the ground running must have been heard by his players as they sped into a two-goal lead.
Connolly, granted a contract extension by Brighton and Hove Albion this year, was at the hub of the action on the left wing.
Straight from the kick-off, Ireland moved the ball from right to left, eventually allowing Connolly to slip past his marker Lei Tong and dart to the end-line. His low cross missed Idah but fell to the onrushing Elbouzedi who side-footed his shot from ten yards in off the underside of the crossbar.
It got even better for Connolly and Ireland four minutes later. When Connor Ronan's free-kick into the wall rebounded, he hooked a pass over them to find Dara O’Shea whose cushioned header picked out Connolly to volley home from six yards.
Two goals to the good, Ireland were cruising but that was before their defence was tested. On 11 minutes, Liangming Lin evaded them to connect with Binbin Chen’s right-wing cross, only to glance his free header wide.
Set-pieces formed their biggest attacking threat. Masterson had to scamper back on 18 minutes to clear the ball off the line after Huanhuan Shan had nipped past the advancing Caoimhin Kelleher. From the resulting corner, Yang Li peeled off his marker 12 yards out to get a free header which beat Kelleher and dropped in off the crossbar. Lin followed in to make sure.
The next goal was going to be crucial and both sides went close to nicking it before the break. Firstly, O'Shea wriggled free to meet Ronan's corner, yet his goalbound header was nodded over his crossbar by Jiabao Wen.
China, too, went close. Ireland were stretched on the counter-attack, offering space for Huanhuan Shan to sprint clear behind their defence. Kelleher, though, displayed his reflexes by sticking out a leg to deny the Vitoria Guimaraes striker.
It would prove a vital intervention as Ireland went on to underline their dominance with two more goals in the second half. Idah grabbed both, each from the penalties awarded for handballs.
He made it 3-1 on 56 minutes after Elbouzedi's cross struck the arm of Li, presenting the Norwich forward the opportunity to stroke the ball beyond Wei Chen.
Idah stuck to the same approach eight minutes from full-time when Jing Guo handled a shot from substitute Jason Knight. The Cork native left the goalkeeper static when side-footing the spot-kick into the bottom right corner.
Next up for Ireland is Mexico on Thursday night followed by the concluding Group C match against Bahrain on Sunday.
IRELAND: Caoimhin Kelleher (Liverpool); Lee O'Connor (Manchester United), Dara O'Shea (Exeter City), Conor Masterson (Liverpool), Darragh Leahy (Bohemians); Jayson Molumby (Brighton & Hove Albion), Conor Coventry (West Ham United); Zack Elbouzedi (Waterford), Connor Ronan (Wolves), Aaron Connolly (Brighton & Hove Albion); Adam Idah (Norwich City).
Subs: Jason Knight (Derby County) for Ronan (63), Simon Power (Norwich City) for Connolly (77), Aaron Drinan (Waterford) for Idah (83), Jack Taylor (Barnet) for Molumby (86).
CHINA: Quanbo Guo; Li Tong, Yang Li, Wei Wu, Jiabao Wen (Jing Guo 70); Binbin Chen, Daogang Yao, Cong Huang, Wenjie Lei (Hui Cheng 80); Liangming Lin, Huanhuan Shan.
Referee: M Carvalho Nobre (POR)