Ireland were held at bay to a 1-1 draw by a well-organised Italy, leaving the Green Machine on four points from six after day two of the EuroHockey Championships II in Gniezno, Poland.
Shane O’Donoghue’s 112th international goal had Ireland ahead in the seventh minute but a quick reply from Francois Sior in the 13th minute levelled the scoreline and no more changes were made to it.
Thereafter, it was a maze of patience as the Italians – ranked eight places below Ireland in 22nd – defended deep and resolutely to offer up limited chances.
The result leaves both sides on four points after two games with Ireland knowing a win of any description against world number 40 side Croatia will see them through to the semi-finals and a confirmed place in the World Cup qualifiers.
“Credit to the Italians, they defended well, stuck to their guns and then went for the long high ball while we didn’t hit fourth or fifth gear,” was O’Donoghue’s assessment.
“We didn’t play with the same level of aggression to the game against Poland. There were some sticky patches which we had to weather and we played good stuff at times but the bounce of the ball didn’t go our way.”
After a slightly slow Irish start saw them concede a second-minute penalty corner, Jonathan Bell’s side soon found a fruitful avenue of attack with O’Donoghue’s accurate crossfield overheads causing plenty of danger.
From the left-wing, he often picked out Tim Cross overlapping down the right and it produced Ireland’s first corner from which O’Donoghue cracked home his 112th international goal with a low drag-flick in the seventh minute.
But the lead was short-lived as a flurry of Italian attacks ended with a loose clearance falling straight to Sior who unleashed a rocket into the roof of the goal.
The second quarter was incredibly tight with few sights on goal as Italy sat deep, looking to counter while the Green Machine enjoyed more possession but found the defence hard to unpick.
The O’Donoghue-Cross connection continued to threaten the Italians but the pair found no success when it came to goals.
The second half was more open with Ian Stewart’s silky skills almost unlocking the door while a fast counter between Ben Nelson and Cross ended with a shot charged down.
Jeremy Duncan cracked one into the backboard but an earlier free-out was called, adding to the frustration. A third Irish corner deflected high from O’Donoghue’s powerful flick into Michael Robson but was deemed dangerous and it proved the last major opening.
While the game stretched, both defences were well controlled, picking off neat tackles in their respective circle.
The post-match body language suggested Italy were much the happier with the outcome – their first result from their last six meetings with Ireland, dating back to 2005.
O’Donoghue said after the match that there was plenty to take from the tie for the young line-up.
“We had a few corners which we needed to capitalise on but this is tournament hockey and we have to learn from it. It is never smooth sailing and you never know what to expect.
“They play their style which is frustrating to play against. I don’t think they caused us too much damage but, from our end, we didn’t have create enough chances.”
Ireland have a quick turnaround with Croatia – playing at this level for the first time – are next on Wednesday afternoon at 4.45pm (Irish time).
“Tomorrow, it is important we don’t go hell for leather from the start. It is important we stick to the gameplan; we know it works from the Poland game,” O’Donoghue continued.
“All the teams are here for the same thing and want to win it, get that gold medal and move up the world rankings.
“We will get back to basics, not make those mistakes, get our forwards more into the game, take some chances and we will be fine.
“We will research the Croatians and go into it with good belief we can get the job done.”
Ireland: J Milliken, T Cross, J McKee, K Marshall, S O’Donoghue, S Murray, M McNellis, P McKibbin, M Robson, B Walker, B Nelson
Subs: D Walsh, K O’Dea, N Glassey, J Duncan, F Gibson, I Stewart
Italy: F Padovani, M Garbaccio, N Mondo, A Nunez, Julian Montone, T Keenan, J Munafo, F Sior, M Mondo, F Harte, M Amorosini
Subs: J Ortega, Juan Montone, D Arosio, C Brocco, F Blom, L Stramazzo
Umpires: T Meissner (GER), F Weiland (AUT)