We have a detailed analysis of the possible Republic of Ireland U21 starting team for their trip to Pisa to play Italy.
Jim Crawford’s first game as u21 manager is arguably the most important of the entire qualification campaign. A win —or even a draw— would leave the u21s in a great position to finish top of the group. Ireland have been incredibly impressive so far in their qualification efforts under the guidance of Stephen Kenny. They’ve won 5 of their 7 games in qualification which included an impressive draw against an Italian side with accomplished players such as Moise Kean, Manuel Locatelli and Sandro Tonali.
However, this time around the fixture is being played under very different circumstances. Since the last fixture, Coronavirus has become a global pandemic, changing the way we consume and play the game. Players and spectators will have gotten used to playing under the changes made in accordance with health and safety regulations, but the virus still affects the game in other ways. In fact, the game between the two nations is in doubt due to Covid protocol. Three members of the Italy squad have contracted the virus and tested positive. Because of this, the Icelandic health authorities have called off Italy’s game against Iceland and the entire squad have been placed in quarantine. The status of the fixture is still up in the air with a decision likely to be made in the next few days.
Nevertheless, the Irish squad will be fully focused on the game ahead in the hope of gaining 3 points. Jim Crawford will already be familiar with many of the players in the squad, having been coach of the Ireland u18s previously. He also held a training camp with the squad last month, so lack of preparation shouldn’t be a problem. The Italians will be no pushovers, though. Their squad is stacked with talent in every position, Serie A regulars Sandro Tonali, Alessandro Bastoni and Patrick Cutrone in particular could cause serious problems for the Irish at both ends of the pitch.
To make matters worse, many of Ireland’s key performers during the campaign won’t be available due to senior squad selection or separate reasons – namely Adam Idah, Jayson Molumby, Aaron Connolly and Troy Parrott. This is not to say the current u21 squad should be starstruck by the Italians, though. There are several bright young prospects included in the squad, many of which are getting regular minutes in the Premier League, Championship and League of Ireland. Many players can also count themselves unlucky not to make the squad which shows the quality of Irish players coming through, something which Irish fans have been starved of in recent years.
This u21 squad is certainly not lacking in terms of quality, leaving Jim Crawford with plenty of decisions to make when selecting his starting 11. Here’s a look at one possible line-up he could go for:
One of the two goalkeepers included in the squad, Bazunu came through at the Shamrock Rovers academy, playing 4 league games and appearing in Europa League qualifiers at the age of 16. The occasion clearly didn’t get to him as he performed admirably in each match, one of which included a penalty save against current Rotherham United man, Kieran Sadlier. Bazunu has appeared for Ireland at numerous age levels. He has battled with Caoimhin Kelleher for the no.1 spot during the u21 campaign, but with Kelleher’s call up to the senior team, Bazunu will look to establish himself as the undisputed first choice keeper. He has earned himself a loan move to League One side Rochdale this season and has already made some vital saves for the team. He recently made a stunning save against Ipswich in a performance that was lauded by Rochdale fans. Known for his reflexes and commanding presence, Bazunu will be looking to establish himself in the senior squad sooner rather than later.
The two noticeable right backs in the squad are Lee O’Connor and Danny McNamara. While McNamara is a useful player, Lee O’Connor should be nailed on to start. Particularly after his pivotal role in the u21 campaign as well as having senior international experience. O’Connor spent 3 years at Manchester United before moving further up North to pursue a move to Celtic in search of first team football. That has not gone to plan for O’Connor so far, which seems to be a common theme for young Irish players at Celtic. He spent last season on loan at Partick Thistle in the Scottish Championship and currently finds himself on loan at League 2 side Tranmere Rovers. Perhaps not the career trajectory he would have wanted so far. Nonetheless, O’Connor is a very talented, modern full back. He’s exceptional at finding open spaces and whipping crosses into the box, he’s also competent defensively having spent a portion of his youth career at centre back. His versatility isn’t limited to defensive positions though, he also makes an effective holding and central midfielder and has played in the middle of the park numerous times at underage level. He’s been vital in the u21 qualification campaign so far, particularly against the Swedes where he scored an equalizer on the half volley to spur his team onto a 4-1 victory.
A product of St Kevin’s Boys and West Brom, Dara O’Shea is another versatile defender, capable of playing all across the back 4. He has operated as a right back for West Brom since his breakthrough last season, but many would say he’s at his best at centre back. A position which he has regularly played in for Ireland. O’Shea has started 6 of the 7 games in the campaign so far and we would expect him to start on Tuesday as well, especially given his form for West Brom. He’s a technical, ball playing centre back who also has bags of aerial ability. In truth, he was unlucky to miss out on a senior call up given that he’s starting week in week out in the Premier League. He shouldn’t worry too much, though. Given his development over the past year, it’s likely he’ll be an integral member of the senior squad for years to come.
Like O’Shea, Masterson has started 6 of the 7 qualification games. During that time, he’s established a formidable central defensive partnership with O’Shea, conceding just 2 goals in the 5 games they’ve started together. A product of the Liverpool academy, Masterson moved to QPR at the start of last season after being released. He impressed at times for QPR last season, notching up 12 league appearances and scoring a goal in the process. He’s of a similar mould as O’Shea, a ball playing centre back with aerial prowess. He displayed his aerial ability in the qualification campaign, scoring a precise header in a 3-1 win against Sweden. Masterson will want to kick on this season with QPR, having failed to make an appearance so far.
The starting left back spot will likely come down to two players; Thomas O’Connor and Darragh Leahy. Although Darragh Leahy has started more games throughout the campaign, Thomas O’Connor’s consistency at club level should get him over the line. The Kilkenny man is spending his second season with League One side Gillingham, after impressing on loan from Southampton last term. O’Connor is a technical full back with a wand of a left foot. He’s capable of creating problems from dead ball situations and from open play with whipped crosses into the box. One of the few accomplished set piece takers in the squad, he’ll be hoping he can create problems for the Italians with his delivery.
Having started every game of the campaign so far, it would be harsh to leave Coventry out of the starting XI. Therefore, he should retain his starting place. Coventry is a bit of a throwback; he operates as a deep lying playmaker who isn’t afraid of doing the dirty work in midfield. He doesn’t have much senior experience under his belt, with just the one loan at Lincoln last season. Additionally, he’s made a handful of EFL cup appearances for West Ham’s senior team and u21s. He probably would have been hoping for a loan this season, but it doesn’t look likely at this stage. He’ll have to bide his time with the youth squads and hope his performances can attract lower league clubs. He done himself no harm in the way of attracting clubs by scoring a screamer against Colchester recently. Another solid display for the u21s would also be helpful in increasing his profile.
The other central midfield position is a toss up between 3 players; Jason Knight, Will Smallbone and Danny Mandroiu. Knight has started the last 2 qualifiers and we would expect him to do the same on Tuesday. He had a magnificent breakthrough season last term and has continued his form into this season, scoring a goal against Preston and playing a key role in Derby’s last win against Norwich. An industrious, goal scoring midfielder, Jason Knight could be the box to box midfielder Ireland need to unsettle the Italians.
The creative spark of the team, Connor Ronan has been one of the most impressive players throughout qualification. Ronan is a player in the mould of Wes Hoolahan, a creative midfielder capable of operating in tight spaces and drawing defenders out of position. 3 years on since he impressed against De Bruyne & co. in the Carabao Cup, things haven’t panned out the way Ronan would have wanted. Currently plying his trade on loan in the Swiss second division, many would argue that Ronan should be playing at a higher level. The Wolves man has had several loan spells over the past few years, failing to settle at any club. His last loan in England was a brief but impressive spell at Blackpool, where he scored one of the goals of the season against Bolton. A player of Ronan’s quality should be playing regularly at a higher level, let’s hope he can find his feet at a club whether it be in England or abroad. He will have to be at this best if Ireland are to get anything out of the Italians.
Given the lack of options Ireland have on the right wing, it’s likely that Elbouzedi will be chosen despite his lack of playing time at Lincoln. Elbouzedi has been one of the surprise performers of the campaign so far, starting most of the games while impressing on both wings. His career has been a rollercoaster. Once on the books of West Brom, he was seen as a bright prospect but failed to break into the first team. He was released and picked up by Inverness Caledonian where he made few appearances and was again released after a year. His career seemed to be on a downward slope, that is until he signed for Waterford. At Waterford, Elbouzedi gradually established himself as one of the best wingers in the league which earned him a spot in the u21 team and a move back to England. Since moving back to England, his playing time has been limited. He’ll be hoping to have a good game against the Italians to capture the attention of his club manager. Elbouzedi is a quick, skilful winger who likes to sprint towards the byline before crossing. He’ll be hoping to use his pace to evade Italian defenders on the way to setting up his teammates.
There are several more options for Jim Crawford to choose from on the left wing. It could be any one of Michael Obafemi, Will Ferry or Neil Farrugia that gets the nod. Realistically though, Michael Obafemi should start. His Premier League experience should prove a deciding factor in terms of selection. Although not a natural left winger, he has played a handful of matches for Ireland on the left. Obafemi is a man with a point to prove. He was left out of the last two Ireland senior squads, reacting angrily at one occasion which wouldn’t have pleased Stephen Kenny. Kenny doesn’t seem to rate him too highly regardless, Obafemi also struggled for minutes when he was u21 manager despite having more first team experience than most in the squad. Obafemi’s pace and directness should cause problems for Italy, we wouldn’t bet against him finding the net. He had a fairly good Premier League campaign last term, scoring against Manchester United and Chelsea. He’s struggled for playtime so far this season but should make a good impact player off the bench for Southampton.
Big boots to fill, Jim Crawford must select a striker to replace arguably the brightest talent from Ireland U21 starting team, Troy Parrott. As it stands, there are three natural strikers for Crawford to choose from; Michael Obafemi, Jonathan Afolabi and JJ Kayode. Seen as Michael Obafemi has already been selected, we’ve gone with Jonathan Afolabi. Afolabi is a pressing forward with bags of pace. He possesses great work rate and determination and uses those traits to pressure opposition defenders into making errors. He was a name few Irish fans would have heard of prior to the 2019 u19 European Championship. Before the tournament, he turned down a new contract at Southampton in order to find first team football elsewhere. His performances at the tournament certainly would have attracted many suitors, as his goals and overall play earned him a place in the team of the tournament. In the end, after months of rumours circulating, he would choose to sign for Celtic. He’s currently in a similar situation as his Celtic and Ireland teammate, Lee O’Connor. Both joined Celtic with the hope of playing first-team football and both have failed to accumulate any minutes at the club. He’s on loan at Dundee F.C. this season after a brief loan at Dunfermline last season. He’s already shown his eye for goal in preseason against Peterhead with a thundering shot from outside the box. He’ll be hoping he can catch the eye of Celtic manager Neil Lennon against the Italians and for the remainder of the season.
This is just one of the many possible line-ups Jim Crawford could come up with. Whatever the XI chosen, the manager and fans alike will be hoping for a spirited and positive display come Tuesday evening.