It might not have had the glory of Rome (if you’re Italian) or Giants Stadium (if you’re Irish), and it lacked the authentic knife-edge competitive drama of both Bari and Croker, yet this latest meeting between two old foes was, in its own way, as remarkable as any which have come before.
It also marked a test of strength between age and youth, as the master Giovanni Trapattoni went head to head with the apprentice Cesare Prandelli. And guess who won? A clue: by night’s end, the small Irish support in a crowd of just over 21,000 were happily roaring “Oh Trapattoni, he used to be Italian but he’s Irish now”.
At the outset — and, indeed, for much of the game — the younger man appeared to have all the aces up his sleeve. Italy might have rested almost half the team which beat Estonia 3-0 in a European Championship qualifier at the weekend, but there were still some well-known names like Pirlo, Chiellini, Rossi and Pazzini in the starting 11. Not to mention the stellar trio of Buffon, Gilardino and Cassano on the bench.
By contrast, probably only Sean St Ledger and Keith Andrews would be guaranteed a place in a Trapattoni first 11 but, once again, the manager could call on buckets of commitment, as exemplified by the presence in the side of Stephen Hunt and Darren O’Dea, barely three days after they’d required pain-killing injections to get them through the rigours of Skopje.
Inside Standard Liege’s compact but atmospheric home, it was strictly David versus Goliath stuff in the stands, Belgium’s huge ex-pat Italian community turning out in force for a chance to see their beloved Azzurri in the flesh and totally eclipsing the hardy band of Irish fans huddled behind one of the goals. Still, there was a special reward for Davy Keogh’s loyalty to the cause, the best-known member of the Green Army reporting FAI boss John Delaney was paying for him and three mates to travel back to Dublin on the team flight. It must have been a happy final trip of the international season for all concerned.
Sheeting rain, accompanied by rolling thunder and flashes of lightning, failed to dilute the enthusiasm of the huge Italian support at the start last night but, by half-time, the tifosi were already reduced to shrill whistling, frustrated first by Irish physicality and then by the fact that the opposition had the temerity to take the lead, admittedly almost wholly against the run of play.
As expected, the Italians pretty much monopolised possession but the final ball repeatedly let then down on the slick surface as the Irish defended in numbers against a side which had given its full-backs license to overlap at will.
In fairness, Paul McShane was seen crossing the half-way line too — confirmation that this was definitely a friendly — but Ireland were mainly reduced to feeding off scraps, though Seamus Coleman was doing his best to get some forward momentum into the team.
The away strips meant it was all-whites versus all-blacks and, as far as the majority of the crowd were concerned, there could be no more obvious guide to who were the angels and who were the devils. Stephen Hunt’s typical over-tenacity earned him a yellow card for a rugged challenge on an unimpressed Pirlo while Keith Andrews was booked for dissent as Ireland sought to fight finesse with fire.
Yet for all Italy’s threat, it was a full half-hour in before David Forde was finally called into serious action on his full debut, the Galway man responding quickly to smother at the feet of Claudio Marchiso on one of the few occasions when an Italian passing move ended with a sight of goal.
At the other end, Shane Long was getting little out of the Italian defence, while his nominal strike partner Andy Keogh was having to spend most of his time dropping deep to shore up the midfield. But in the 35th minute, after referee Serge Gumieny penalised Allessandro Gamberino for a foul on Long, Ireland extracted full advantage. Twenty-five yards out, Hunt rolled the ball to Andrews and when, uncharacteristically, the Italians continued to stand off, the Blackburn man was able to shift the ball closer to goal before ripping a low shot past Emiliano Viviano to the corner of the net.
Both shaken and stirred, Italy added fresh legs and markedly more urgency to their game in the second half but, despite the one-way traffic, Forde remained largely untested until almost the very end of match. By then, the contest had virtually boiled down one of defence versus attack, something which played to the strengths of an Irish side which, under Trapattoni, has almost turned resilience into an art form. The crosses flew in and the efforts from distance kept on coming but, always, there was an Irish foot, head or even backside in the way to avert the danger. Darren O’Dea was especially commanding but not one the boys in black was found wanting with the Irish goal under extended siege.
In the 81st minute, the huge effort finally took its toll on O’Dea, who’d only been passed fit on the day of the game, Stephen Kelly coming on to see out the remaining minutes.
And see it out Ireland did — and in outstanding style. There was one minute of time to go, when with the Italians pushing forward en masse, Stephen Ward cleverly put Stephen Hunt clear into open space down the left. The tireless Wolves man needed no further invitation to drive for the line and, when he pulled the ball across the face of goal, there was Simon Cox — having raced half the length of the field to keep pace with Hunt — arriving on cue to finish superbly from close range.
It was a stunning goal to finish another night when Ireland stunned Italy on a football pitch. They really must be sick of the sight of us.
Subs for Ireland: Whelan for Foley 60, Cox for Long 60, Treacy for Keogh 75, Kelly for O’Dea 83, Delaney for Ward 90.
Subs for Italy: Palambo for Pirlo 46, Rossi for Matri 47, Gilardino for Pazzini 58, Giovinco for Nocerino 59, Balzeretti for Cruscito 65.