Jim Crawford was unable to pick up points in what was his first game in charge
On what was a fair day in Pisa, goals from Riccardo Sottil and Patrick Cutrone propelled the Italian u21 team to a 2-0 victory over the Irish. This result means that the Irish drop down to second in the table with Italy going top with a game in hand. Ireland’s qualification chances have taken a bump as Iceland and Sweden are just one point behind, with Iceland also having a game in hand.
The Italian team, although still impressive, were forced to field their u20 team – along with u21 players Patrick Cutrone, Samuele Ricci, Riccardo Sottil and Sandro Tonali – as there was a coronavirus outbreak in the initial squad. They postponed their game against Iceland last Friday over coronavirus fears but they were determined to complete today’s fixture, even if it meant fielding a “weakened squad”.
Ireland were not without their absences either, with Jason Knight and Dara O’Shea being called up to the senior squad and Neil Farrugia being ruled out due to injury. Bohs’ winger Danny Grant was called up to replace Farrugia but there were no further replacements for Knight or O’Shea.
The Italians went with a fluid 5-3-2 formation while Ireland shaped up in a 4-4-3 formation as they had done prior to Jim Crawford’s appointment. Conor Masterson was appointed captain for the day.
STARTING XI | #ITAIRL 🇮🇹🇮🇪
— FAIreland ⚽️🇮🇪 (@FAIreland) OCTOBER 13, 2020
Before the game all eyes had been on Italian deep lying playmaker Sandro Tonali, who recently sealed a loan move to AC Milan after coming through the Brescia academy. A midfielder in the mould of Andrea Pirlo – who coincidentally also came through at Brescia – Tonali has exceptional vision and possesses the unique ability of controlling the balance of play seamlessly.
Tonali’s showed glimpses of his quality as he demonstrated his impressive passing range, but the show was stolen by Ricardo Sottil. Sottil was a constant thorn to the Irish backline as his impressive close control and good runs off the ball consistently caused problems. He was involved in both goals as he scored the first and assisted the second. The winger already has considerable senior experience after appearing for Fiorentina on multiple occasions as well as a brief loan at Pescara. The Fiorentina winger is currently on loan at Cagliari in what he’ll be hoping will be his breakthrough season. He certainly did his reputation no harm with today’s impressive performance.
Both teams showed what they were capable of in the first half in what was a tight affair.
The Italian left hand side in particular caused major problems for the Irish, with Frabrotta and Sottil providing the spark. The first chance of the match came in the 5th minute as left back Frabrotta went on a marauding run which resulted in a shot blocked by the captain, Conor Masterson.
Ireland had an opportunity of their own not long after. A poor headed clearance by the Italian centre back afforded Jack Taylor an opportunity on the half volley, but his shot sailed wide of the post. Taylor had another opportunity minutes after with a tame effort from outside the box that was easily gathered by the keeper.
Ireland played some good football in the first half, with many of their opportunities coming down the left side due to Elbouzedi’s pace and directness. He consistently caused problems for Birindelli as he bolted past the right back on several occasions. Michael Obafemi had an opportunity in the 32nd minute after a brilliant run and squared ball from Elbouzedi, but he failed to sort out his feet in time for a shot. Moments after, a dangerous cross from Darragh Leahy nearly reached Lee O’Connor but he was shielded well by his man.
A dangerous back pass in the 35th minute from Conor Coventry resulted in a Riccardo Sottil interception but he failed to capitalize on Coventry’s mistake as he blazed over the bar.
Sottil was perhaps Italy’s most dangerous player in the first half and his efforts paid off in the 42nd minute as he hit the back of the net. It was all too easy as he was played in behind after a good off the ball run, before he cut inside and placed the ball into the bottom right corner of the net. There wasn’t much Gavin Bazunu could do as he was let down by poor closing down by Masterson.
The first half ended 1-0 to Italy. The scoreline probably reflected the way the half went as Italy had the bigger chances but that’s not to say that Ireland played poorly. Ireland actually enjoyed more possession than the Italians but failed to turn their control of the play into chances.
There were no changes made at the start of the second half as both teams lined up as they had started.
The first opportunity of the second half came after an Irish corner which fell to Connor Ronan inside the edge of the area, but he failed to connect properly on the half volley and the ball was cleared to safety. Ronan also hit a hopeful effort from 30 yards on 52 minutes which went straight into the Italian keeper gloves. Ronan had been one of Ireland’s standout performers throughout the campaign, but he failed to provide the creativity he had done previously in what was an unremarkable showing.
Italy extended their lead in the 61st minute through Patrick Cutrone. Once again, Riccardo Sottil was involved as he made another fantastic run in behind the Ireland back four before squaring to Cutrone who tucked the ball into the bottom corner. Darragh Leahy was caught out of position in the build-up which made life easy for Sottil.
Ireland’s only other opportunity of the half came in the 64th minute. More impressive play by Elbouzedi resulted in a deflected effort which went out for an Irish corner.
Ireland made their first and only subs in the 74th minute as Jim Crawford looked for more options. Mandroiu came on for Jack Taylor, Danny Grant came on for Connor Ronan and Jonathan Afolabi came on for Michael Obafemi.
Michael Obafemi had been talked about a great deal before the game after his exclusion from the Ireland senior squad, but he failed to live up to expectations as he was consistently shut out by the Italian defence before being hooked off. He did demonstrate glimpses of his quality as his pace and pressing caused problems on occasion, but overall it was a disappointing appearance from the Southampton striker.
The match finished 2-0 to the Italians as Ireland failed to take advantage of their coronavirus struggles.
FULL-TIME | #ITAIRL 🇮🇹 2-0 🇮🇪
Goals from Sottil and Cutrone prove to be the difference as Italy join Ireland joint-top of Group 1
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— FAIreland ⚽️🇮🇪 (@FAIreland) OCTOBER 13, 2020
There were no standout performers from the Ireland side, but Zach Elbouzedi and Nathan Collins showed what they’re capable of throughout the match. Elbouzedi’s directness allowed him to get into advantageous positions but his final ball was often lacking. He’ll be hoping his performance impressed Lincoln boss Michael Appleton, as he has struggled for minutes since joining the club earlier this year. Nathan Collins, on the other hand, was brilliant at times. Stoke fans have been raving about him in recent week and it’s easy to see why. He constantly broke down Italian attacks with his commanding presence and looked very assured on the ball despite his towering appearance.
Jim Crawford will now put his attention towards the remaining two group games. Both fixtures are being played next month with Iceland coming up on the 12th and Luxembourg on the 17th. The result against Iceland would be crucial to the u21s qualification chances, as they stand one point behind Ireland with a game in hand.
Ireland will be hoping results go their way in the remaining fixtures, as they would then stand a good chance of qualifying for the u21 European Championships for the first time in what has been an impressive campaign thus far.