An 85th minute header from Robbie Brady booked Republic of Ireland's spot in the Last 16 against France with a narrow victory over Italy in Lille.
Italy 0-1 Ireland
The Boys In Green dominated for the majority of the game, but went unrewarded for almost 90 minutes as a weakened Italian side showcased their togetherness and resolutely defended.
Lorenzo Insigne struck the post late in the second half, while Wes Hoolahan squandered a golden opportunity with minutes remaining.
With Italy scheduled to play Spain in the knockout stages on Monday, manager Antonio Conte conceivably rested the usual starters and gave chances to younger and more inexperienced players to take to the field. Pre-match, this was perceived as Ireland's best hope of victory.
Martin O'Neill's side, winless in the tournament, consistently pressurised the Italians with energy and penetration up front, but similarly to their performance against Belgium, were frustrated at the failure to convert chances. Jeff Hendrik capitalised on Long and Brady's movement to create space in the middle, but his left-footed effort pinged wide of goal.
Hendrik subsequently retrieved it, however the resolute, disciplined back three of Conte's preference intercepted at the second time of asking. The Irish, as passionate and resilient as they are, lacked killer-instinct in order to truly take Salvatore Sirugu out of his comfort zone behind experience defenders.
The Boys in Green continuously probed, but to no real avail. Daryl Murphy's header was athletically tipped over by Sirugu before the following corner resulted in Shane Duffy fouling Angelo Ogbonna. Furthermore, Brady's blistering pace on the ball, interchanging with teammates and diverting from the centre to left flank often puzzled Conte's men and Seamus Coleman played his own part. Drifting in from the right, he breezed past his marker but Brady's shot from the cut-back was mistimed.
Moments later, there was little rest bite for Italy's stubborn defence. Rough, tough and desperate, they refused to concede but came mightily close to doing so when Hendrik's deliver, bundling through the area but out for a corner, culminated in Shane Duffy's header from a tight angle beating Sirugu but not the goal. Subsequently, in Italy's first attack of the game, Ciro Immobile's shot from range swerved around the bottom far post in an effort Darren Randolph probably had covered.
For all of Ireland's efforts with no reward, operating an energy-sapping gameplan in humid stadium heat, a wrongly denied penalty then militated mentally. Bernardeschi blatantly elbowed Shane Duffy in the back, but despite the Irishman stumbling over in the box, the referee disagreed and waved play on.
As legs tired and space opened up, the more Salvatore Sirugu and his defenders were forced to work. Daryl Murphy's thrashed effort into the area forced a formidable stop from the goalkeepers, subsequent to Seamus Coleman's effort taking a vital deflection off Angelo Ogbonna, potentially preventing a goal.
Republic of Ireland to their credit operate with in an energetic fashion with a refusal to back down, but their attacking play is simply abysmal. A team struggling to convert goals, the perception would be fantastic build-up but no final product. They have neither. All night, crosses were flying wide of the target, over the bar, passes were often wayward, and shots painfully sailed far from the destination.
Clearly highlighted by Jeff Hendrik who breezed away from several markers, but yet again failed to test Sirugu. Pure frustration increased, and his wayward effort further emphasised that.
To contribute to their misery, Conte's substitute Lorenzo Insigne burst straight onto the scene and darted everywhere from the halfway line to the Ireland area. He went the closest either team went to breaking the deadlock as a scorching run resulted in a low curling strike that pinged off the far right post.
Ireland's lack of quality in the final-third was the major component in their downfall. Hendrik fired wide, while Seamus Coleman's wasted opportinity, and then the biggest of the game, Wes Hoolahan snuffed his lines in on goal versus Sirugu late on. As you'd expect, Martin O'Neil went ballistic on the touchline.
There was no direction when it most mattered, and the Irish were found wanting in almost every department, up until...
Before Italy dominated possession, a sudden change in the script occurred. With sheer urgency running through their veins, one final counter attack saw Robbie Brady, unmarked in the area, plant a superb header past the clutches of Salvatore Sirugu and sparked thunderous celebrations from the Irish faithful.
Republic of Ireland perhaps lack quality, but hard work can definitely pay off.
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