Lee O’Connor admits Ireland’s U21s will have to break Icelandic resistance today to stay on track for a first ever European Championship finals. Stephen Kenny’s side are top of their qualifying group despite Italy ending their 100% record in Thursday’s scoreless draw.
Ireland left Tallaght Stadium ruing some missed chances but can maintain daylight from the top seeds by winning in Reykjavik today. The Icelanders come into the contest wounded from a 5-0 defeat to Sweden on Saturday. They had opened the campaign with victories over Luxembourg (3-0) and Armenia (6-1).
In order to challenge the Italians for top spot, nothing less than three points on the artificial surface today will suffice. Only the group winner is guaranteed a place at the 2021 finals in Slovenia and Hungary, with the runners-up having to tackle the lottery of a play-off.
O’Connor, who recently left Manchester United to join Celtic on a four-year contract, is confident of claiming victory.
“We had set out to get six points from this double-header but need four at this stage,” said the 19-year-old. “The depth of disappointment in the dressing room from the Italy draw shows how far we’ve come as a team under Stephen. We had the chances to beat them.
Now it’s about getting our winning run back. Iceland is a huge game for us if we want to stay in the qualification hunt.
In contrast to the raucous atmosphere in Tallaght, today’s contest will be played in front of a few hundred hardy souls. Temperatures in the Iceland capital dipped to almost freezing yesterday and the Irish players will be wrapped up for the afternoon kickoff at the Viking Stadium.
“It certainly won’t be as loud as Tallaght,” said O’Connor with a grin. “Still, a game is a game and we have to do our jobs.”
The defender has no regrets about quitting United on his own terms. He had been tipped to get game-time in the League Cup after training with the first team but opted to quit on the final day of the summer transfer window.
“I always wanted to play for Celtic,” he admitted. “From speaking to the manager Neil Lennon, he told me how much of a family club it is. The other Irish lads I know there, like Jonny Afolabi, said the same and I see myself getting my chance if I work hard.
“It was difficult to leave United but it was purely a football decision. I had four great years there, moving over from Waterford at 15, yet I had to think about my career. I’ve already settled in really well in Scotland.”
Kenny has travelled without the suspended Troy Parrott while Aaron Connolly remains occupied with the seniors following his promotion.
Afolabi is another striking option ruled out through injury but Michael Obafemi should earn his first Under-21 start. The striker has featured for Southampton in the Premier League this season. Late call-ups Aaron Drinan and Danny Grant are also vying for involvement.