Tonight’s Italian job for Ireland’s U21s will be boosted if Conor Masterson can repeat his shackling of Wolves striker Patrick Cutrone.
Stephen Kenny has identified the Premier League forward as one of Italy’s main threats ahead of the vital sold-out Euro qualifier but Masterson already has the fillip of keeping the hitman quiet.
Two years ago, when the nations met at U19 level, Ireland ran out 2-0 winners. Tom Mohan’s side, with Masterson partnering a certain Declan Rice in central defence, also managed to defeat Belgium, only to lose out on qualifying for the Euro finals to Sweden.
Masterson was then a Liverpool player and had led Ireland to the U17 Euros. Having missed out on the next set of finals, he’s determined to help his generation create history.
That Ireland have never reached a major U21 tournament is another motivator for tonight as they look to consolidate their status as the early pacesetters in the group.
The Italians, albeit five times winners of the Euro Championships, come to Ireland only trying to reduce the gap at the summit.
Wins in all three games so far have put the Irish in command of their own destiny.
“I marked Cutrone in that U19 game and they didn’t like us pressing them high up the pitch,” said Masterson, who scored his first U21 goal in last month’s 3-1 win away to Sweden.
“Cutrone was a bustling forward but I did fine against him. The Italian team had an arrogance about them that day, just because they’re a big footballing nations. They’ll see us pressing them again in his U21 match.
“It won’t be like the old days when Ireland teams sat back, played 4-5-1 and hit the ball long. We’ll play the same way as always by trying to control the game.”
The 21-year-old is now on the books of Queen’s Park Rangers since leaving Liverpool in the summer.
Despite being part of Jurgen Klopp’s squad, including an appearance on the bench for their Champions League semi-final clash against Manchester City in April 2018, the Dubliner wanted out of the comfort zone.
Since joining QPR, he’s made the bench without getting any game-time from Mark Warburton.
The R’s manager will be at Tallaght Stadium to see how his young gun fares in his latest international test.
“The gaffer signed me as a development player so I have to respect the more experienced lads who are there,” said Masterson.
One of the players keeping him out of the team is compatriot Ryan Manning. The Galwegian has been a mainstay of the team as left-wing back but hasn’t caught the eye of Mick McCarthy enough to earn a senior call-up. Masterson is one of the many puzzled by his exclusion.
“I’m surprised Ryan hasn’t got the call-up and I think he is too,” he explained.
“Since I’ve arrived, himself and Mide Shodipo have helped me settle in. Dylan Mernagh is the long-term head of sports science, so there’s a good Irish group. We all stick together.”
Wolves playmaker Connor Ronan is likely to come back into Kenny’s starting team having missed last month’s double-header with broken ribs.Senior international Michael Obafemi is also vying to start but may be kept in reserve in the same way Kenny kept Troy Parrott under wraps until the second half of the Swedish comeback.
IRELAND (probable): C Kelleher (Liverpool); L O’Connor (Celtic), D O’Shea (West Brom), C Masterson (QPR), L Scales (UCD); J Molumby (Millwall), C Coventry (West Ham); C Ronan (DAC Dunajská Streda), T Parrott (Tottenham), G Kilkenny (AFC Bournemouth); A Idah (Norwich City).