By John Fallon
Italy 1 Ireland 0
Ireland suffered the first defeat of their UEFA Under-21 qualification campaign tonight against 10-man Italy in Vicenza as a second-half winner settled a tight contest.
The breakthrough goal arrived on 67 minutes after Federico Bernardeschi’s defence-splitting defence pass allowed Vittorio Parigini to slip in, brush off the challenge of Sean Long and hoist the ball past the advancing Danny Rogers.
Three minutes later, Ireland received a boost as Bernardeschi incurred his second yellow card for kicking the ball away, giving the visitors a numerical advantage for the last 20 minutes.
They produced plenty of chances to find the equaliser without applying the clinical touch. Josh Cullen’s low 75th-minute volley missed the target by a yard before Sean Kavanagh whistled his effort wide with goalkeeper Alessio Cragno beaten.
Callum O’Dowda and substitute Dylan Connolly also went close to levelling on a night Ireland certainly deserved at least a draw.
Manager Noel King kept faith with the same starting line-up which racked up a third straight victory of the campaign on Thursday by beating Lithuania 3-0.
The Italians, having also begun the campaign with a 100 per cent record but with a game less played, took the initiative early on as AC Milan first-teamer Alessio Romagnoli presented a threat through his advancing surges from the back.
Still, Ireland coped with this ploy and grew with confidence as they half progressed. On 10 minutes, Kavanagh was unlucky to be adjudged offside when he unleashed a ferocious shot from the left which Cragno dived full-stretch to bat away.
The Cagliari goalkeeper was called upon again six minutes later to deny Ireland from the best chance of the opening 45 minutes.
Kavanagh’s probing run attracted a couple of Italian defenders, allowing him free Jack Byrne into space 10 yards out. Although the Manchester City teen’s connected perfectly with his shot, Cragno once again displayed his agility to paw the rising effort around his post.
With Byrne, Cullen and Alan Browne excelling as a midfield trio, Ireland enjoyed plenty in possession much to the frustration of the home crowd.
Their mood only changed after Italy nudged ahead against the run of play. With the top two in the group securing a play-off shot at reaching the 2017 finals in Holland, there’s plenty of games left for King’s cubs to revive their qualification ambitions.
ITALY: A Cragno (Cagliari); A Conti (Atalanta), A Romagnoli (AC Milan), D Rugani (Juventus), N Murru (Cagliari); R Mandragora (Pescara), D Cataldi (Lazio); F Bernardeschi (Fiorentina), G Monachello (Atalanta), K Boateng (Bari); A Cerri (Cagliari).
Subs: V Parigini (Perugia) for Cerri (61 mins), Davide Calabria (AC Milan) for Boateng (75 mins), L Garritano (Cesena) for Monachello (88 mins).
IRELAND: D Rogers (Falkirk); S Long (Reading), G Rea (Southend Utd), D Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers), J Connors (Dagenham); A Browne (Preston NE), J Byrne (SC Cambuur), J Cullen (West Ham Utd); C O’Dowda (Oxford Utd), C Wilkinson (Barnsley), S Kavanagh (Fulham).
Subs: S Maguire (Dundalk) for Kavanagh, D Connolly (Ipswich Town) for Byrne (both 86 mins)
Referee: A Agheyev (AZE).