Ireland must settle for play-offs in bid for historic Euro qualification following defeat to classy Italy


Ireland’s U-21s must navigate a play-off to qualify for a first European Championship, after they were defeated by a strong Italian side in Ascoli.

im Crawford’s side arrived at the Stadio Cino e Lillo Del Duca knowing that a win would book their place for next year’s tournament in Romania and Georgia. However, strikes by Nicoló Rovella and Nicolo Cambiaghi gave Ireland a mountain to climb at the break.

Italy, who have won the competition five times, added a third through Pietro Pellegri straight from the restart. Ireland captain Conor Coventry pulled one back from the spot, but Italy saw the game out comfortably to top the group and qualify automatically.

Ireland finish the campaign in second and will now plan for the two-legged play-off in September. The unseeded draw takes place next Tuesday, with Slovakia, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Israel, or Iceland all potential opponents.

Crawford made three changes from last week’s 3-1 home win over Montenegro. Joel Bagan, Gavin Kilkenny, and Evan Ferguson came into the side as Tayo Adaramola, Conor Noss and Joshua Kayode dropped to the bench.

In the 28 degree heat, Ireland had two scares inside the opening five minutes. Derby’s Eiran Cashin hesitated with the ball and was dispossessed by Pellegri, who’s driving shot was well saved by the foot of Brian Maher. Minutes later, Andrea Cambiaso drove forward but steered his shot wide.

The hosts took the lead on 20 minutes when Mark McGuinness fouled Caleb Okoli inside the box. Genoa midfielder Rovella nailed the spot-kick, sending Maher the wrong way. The Hungarian referee booked McGuinness, who will now miss the first-leg of the play-off. Ireland’s best chance of the half fell to Southampton’s Will Smallbone in the six-yard box, but he couldn’t control Cashin’s clever cross. Bagan found a pocket of space minutes later but blazed his shot high over the crossbar.

Italy doubled their lead ten minutes before the break. Cambiaghi’s long-range strike squeezed by Maher, who looked uncomfortable after requiring treatment on his ankle minutes before.

After a poor start, Crawford’s side finished the half better. On his third cap, UCD’s Liam Kerrigan drilled a cross into the Italian box which the goalkeeper scrambled to punch clear. Maher did brilliantly to tip Cambiaghi’s curling effort over the crossbar in the final chance of the opening 45 minutes.

Crawford introduced Shamrock Rovers’ Andy Lyons at the restart. Ireland switched to a back three but began the half disastrously, as a mix-up between Maher and McGuinness gifted Pellegri a goal and put paid to any Irish hopes of topping the group.

Kilkenny’s thundering strike went just wide on 55 minutes, before Cambiaghi saw his effort well saved by Maher. Viti should have added a fourth for the hosts five minutes later but missed an open goal after Maher misjudged the Italian cross.

The Empoli defender gave Ireland a lifeline immediately after, fouling Smallbone inside the box. Coventry dispatched the penalty and cut the deficit with his third goal of the campaign. Ireland failed to kick on after the goal however, with Italy happy to retain possession and tire the visitors out. Ten minutes from the end, 17-year-old Evan Ferguson weaved his way through the Italian defence but couldn’t get his shot off, before Miretti’s driving effort was smartly saved by Maher.

A smart one-two between Coventry and Kayode saw Ireland get in behind the Italian back-line. Coventry went down inside the box but there was no second penalty awarded to the visitors. Italy hit their fourth with five minutes to go, as Quagliata skipped past Lee O’Connor and slotted past Maher.

Italy: Plizzari; Okoli, Pirola, Viti, Parisi (Quagliata 66); Cambiaso, Ricci, Rovella (Ranocchia 88), Bove (Miretti 66); Pellegri (Esposito 83), Cambiaghi (Colombo 88).

Ireland: Maher; O’Connor, Cashin (O’Brien 83), McGuinness, Bagan (Lyons 45); Coventry, Kilkenny (Odubeko 62); Kerrigan (Noss 62), Smallbone, Wright; Ferguson (Kayode 74).

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